Suspected Arson Fire Destroys Sikh Temple

Local residents fear fire may have been a backlash incident arising from the World Trade Center attacks.

(RNS) Federal, state and local authorities are investigating a fire that swept over Gobind Sadan, a meditation center and Sikh house of worship in Hastings, N.Y. on Nov. 18, all but destroying the building.



"We're treating it as an arson investigation" said Undersheriff Robert Lighthall of the Oswego County Sheriff's Office, "but it depends on the conclusion of the evidence."

Although no suspects have been named, local residents fear it may be a backlash incident arising from the World Trade Center attacks. Numerous incidents of violence have been reported against Sikhs since Sept. 11. "You certainly have to keep that in the back of your mind," said Lighthall, "but that's not an aggressive angle. It could be some neighborhood kids who started a fire that went unattended. Or it could be someone who opposes what these people represent."

A two-story structure surrounded by farmland, Gobind Sadan was converted into a Sikh center in 1987. The center was established by followers of Baba Virsa Singh Ji, a spiritual leader from India. The Sikh religion traces its roots back to the 15th century, when it was founded by Guru Nanak in Punjab, a region that straddles modern-day India and Pakistan.

Miraculously, according to followers, the one thing that did survive the blaze was the center's copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, a holy book completed in 1604. "For us that's a beacon of hope," said Ralph Singh, a longtime member of the community, "that despite everything, love and compassion does triumph over evil."

However, the incident has increased concerns that because of their turbans and surface resemblance to the alleged Islamic terrorists, Sikhs in America may be a visible target of hostility and ignorance.

"A Sikh turban is a standard of truth, of justice, of values and character that some may call the American way," said Singh, who adopted Sikhism upon a visit to India in 1971. "It stands for everybody's right to pray, in private or public. It is there to distinguish the person, that they stand for these ideals."

Although the building was insured, the governing board of Gobind Sadan is yet to make any decisions about reconstruction efforts. "We'll rebuild it according to our requirements," said Gurbachan Singh, a founding member whose computer, along with computer files of books he had authored, were destroyed.

But the destruction has brought with it a strong sense of unity among area Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.

"The whole community is rallying around to rebuild this place, and that is what is meant to be," said Ralph Singh, who remains hopeful. "Some great good will come of this."

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