Sikhs unite to honour shooting victims

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IOL pic aug13 sikh temple Associated Press A man prays outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek ahead of the first Sunday service since the shooting incident that left seven people dead.

Oak Creek, Wisconsin - Hundreds of people gathered at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee spoke of redemption, unity and strength during the first Sunday service there since a white supremacist gunman killed six people before fatally shooting himself.

The service capped a weekend of events meant to honour the victims and restore the temple as a place of worship. While there were still tears and red eyes, many participants said healing was under way.

Visitors removed their shoes outside and filed past portraits of the victims, shuffling down a flower-lined aisle into the main prayer room. They dropped dollar bills in front of a shrine where their holy book sits and bowed for two to three seconds. Then they sat on the floor - women on the left, men on the right - their heads covered with scarves, and listened as a priest recited religious hymns in the Hindi dialect of Punjabi.

Those at Sunday's service included Sikhs from as far away as California and about 50 from Cleveland, who chartered a bus to make the eight-hour drive to support their community.

“It's an emotional day but it's getting better,” said Justice Khalsa, 41, of Milwaukee, who visits the temple three or four days a week. “I'm smiling and laughing now, but once this group goes away and we're back to our regular schedule, it will be haunting, I'm sure.”

The proceedings began in the parking lot with a “nishan sahib”, a ceremony in which participants clean a Sikh flagpole to symbolise the temple's rebirth.

Women sang hymns as a group lowered the pole. About 50 people, mostly men and boys, unwrapped a faded orange cloth that covered the pole, washed the pole with water and milk and then rewrapped it with a darker orange cloth. The group then filed inside the temple for more prayers and hymns.

Wade Michael Page, 40, used a 9mm pistol to kill six people and wound four others, including a police officer, in an attack that took place shortly before a service was to begin on August 5. He shot himself after being wounded by another police officer.

Page, an Army veteran with a record of minor alcohol-related crimes and a spotty employment history, had performed with several bands associated with white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups. Still, investigators say they may never know for certain what prompted his attack.

When relatives gathered to plan Friday's memorial for the six who died, several wanted to include a seventh empty coffin to remember Page.

“It would have sent a message that we have forgiven this man for his actions,” said Amardeep Singh, the son of one victim. “We forgave him because otherwise it would have been a thorn in our side for the rest of our lives.”

The idea was eventually scuttled, and most at the temple on Sunday seemed content to forget about Page.

“He should not be discussed,” Khalsa said. “People like that aren't important. They don't deserve attention. We're concentrating on the people who lost their lives.”

Temple officials unveiled a simple but powerful memorial to the victims. While leaders had repaired most of the damage to the temple, they left one bullet hole unrepaired. Beneath it they installed a small gold plate engraved with “We Are One. 8-5-12”.

The hole, in a doorway near the main prayer room, is meant to remind visitors of the victims: the temple president, three priests and two worshippers, as well as a police officer and three others who were injured.

It was in their memory that Amarjit Singh Kang, 48, organised the charter bus from Cleveland. He said attendees didn't think twice about whether to make the trip.

“It's important we all be together,” he said. - Sapa-AP

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