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Durbin condemns backlash against Sikhs, Assyrians

Posted: Monday, October 01, 2001 at 09:35 AM CT

About two weeks ago, Amrith Kaur Mago and a friend marched into U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin's office and said they needed to talk about the backlash against Sikh-Americans. They didn't have an appointment.

"I told him that the Chicago community would really like to be reassured by you," said Mago, 20, a college student in Washington who grew up in west suburban Wayne.

"He said, `When are you going home? I'll come.' It was very, very important to us."

On Sunday, Mago walked Durbin to the front of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society temple in Palatine. In front of about 500 temple members, Durbin announced his plans to introduce a resolution in the Senate next week condemning the bigotry and violence against Sikh-Americans since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The resolution also asks authorities to prosecute all those who commit hate crimes.

The event in Palatine was just one that tried to address the backlash against ethnic and religious groups since 19 men from the Middle East hijacked and crashed four jetliners, killing more than 5,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

Services at the Sikh temple in Palatine and at St. John's Assyrian American Church, 1421 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, tried to educate the community about different religions, tolerance and respect.

Fallout from the attacks has brushed not only Arabs and Muslims. Sikh men, who wear turbans and long beards, and Sikh women have also been threatened and hurt.

More than 500 crimes against Sikhs and Muslims have been reported nationwide. The FBI has opened at least 90 investigations into hate-crime allegations. A Sikh man was shot dead in Arizona. In Chicago a taxi driver named Mustapha Zemkour was beaten up.

For most of the Sikhs at the service Sunday, the backlash has been more subtle. A man, Mago said, refused to open the door to Mago's brother and swore at the teenager when he tried to sell him candy for a high school fundraiser in Wayne. One of Mago's sisters, too afraid to leave her home since Sept. 11, bought pepper spray, he said.

"I spent the last three days flying," said Kulmeet Singh, a Sikh-American at the temple Sunday who flew from Texas to California to Chicago. "The only thing they didn't do was a full-body cavity search."

Two Assyrian churches may have been targeted the weekend of Sept. 22-23. A note left at an Assyrian church in Roselle asked, "Are you with U.S. or with the enemy?" And someone set a fire at St. John's Assyrian American Church, causing at least $200,000 in damage.

"I couldn't believe it," said church member Joey Joseph, 19, wearing a "God Bless America" T-shirt. "Why would they burn my church?"

He pointed to the singed wooden walls, the melted red plastic that hangs over the entryway and to the wooden cross there, which didn't burn.

Investigators are trying to determine whether the arson qualifies as a hate crime.

Assyrian churches are Christian, and their membership comes mainly from the Middle East.

An interfaith group, made up of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, showed up at St. John's on Sunday to offer support.

Germaine Malick, an Assyrian Roman Catholic, came to show her support. Afterward, she walked up to Shiva Singh Khalsa, who is Sikh, and grabbed his elbow.

"I'm not from this church either, but I'm so happy to see all of you people," Malick told Khalsa.

"We're Americans," he said. "And we're neighbors. And we're not afraid to show up here."

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