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Queens Sikhs Stage WTC prayer Service Marathon

Queens Sikh community flung open its temples known as Gurudwaras to the public last weekend so their neighbors could observe an intense and colorful 48-hour marathon prayer vigil for victims of the World Trade Center disaster.
More than 800 of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Queens Sikhs, many of them fearful of hate crimes that have swept the borough, filled a temple at 95-30 118 St. in Richmond Hill to demonstrate their loyalty to the U.S. Large numbers of Sikhs settled in the tri-state area after fleeing discrimination from India in their native Punjab.
Police had cordoned off the streets surrounding the Sikh Cultural Society to protect members from violence after one of them, a 66-year-old Sikh, was attacked with a bat by two carloads of teenagers who accused him of being an Arab terrorist. The victim, Altar Singh, was treated and released from Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. Two of the attackers were arrested.
A Gurudwaras spokesperson said that many Sikh men are mistaken for Muslims because of the turbans and beards they wear for religious reasons.
The round-the-clock service was conducted in a Scheherazade-like setting, with an elaborately appointed main hall illuminated by glittering chandeliers overhead. Men and women worshippers sitting in segregated sections chanted along with a Giani, or priest, who sat cross-legged in front of them waving an ornate feathered fan. All through the night supplicants knelt in front of the Giani and offered prayers.
The rituals came to a dramatic end late Friday night when City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a candidate for Mayor, was escorted into the temple by Sikh religious leaders. He wore a dark blue suit and an orange turban.
Vallone told the assemblage that Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other officials were determined to protect the Sikhs and called them loyal citizens of the U.S.
He recounted the difficulties that other ethnic groups had encountered upon entering the U.S., drawing a parallel with his own fathers emigration to New York after leaving Sicily.
The audience comprised of white-robed men sporting turbans and beards and women clad in saris, burst into prayers of thanks as Vallone assured them they would not be forgotten by the City during these difficult times.
Avtar Singh Pannu, chairman of the Sikh Society, said the Sikh religion teaches tolerance and peace.
"We have come to the U.S. to leave behind the discrimination we suffered in India and build a better life for our families," he said. "Our hearts and souls are with the American people."
Pannu said the marathon scripture reading is the highest spiritual act Sikhs can conduct for the souls of those who are seriously injured.
He added that there are six Sikh temples in Queens and his countrymen are professionals, work in the construction business, or are engineers, computer consultants or taxi drivers.
Queens political leaders, including Congressman Joseph Crowley of Jackson Heights, whose district is home to many hundreds of Sikhs, condemned hate crimes.
"I can understand the peoples anger, but attacks on Sikhs should never take place," Crowley said. "I want to make that clear."
Congressman Gregory Meeks, of southeast Queens, strongly condemned the "ignorant and senseless acts of violence" against Sikhs. He urged those victimized to notify his district office in Richmond Hill at (718) 949-5600.
A Sikh City Council candidate, Inderjit Singh, in the 28th Council District, said that Sikhs in Richmond Hill have collected items for donation to the police and fire departments. As far as the community hostility to Sikhs is concerned, he said, "We dont want to blame anyone. We know its a touchy and testing time for everyone in America, but we want to be acknowledged as loyal, hard-working American citizens."

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