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Under attack, Sikhs defend their religious liberties

Hate crimes and profiling issues have beset them since Sept. 11. But Sikhs rally to inform US about their faith.

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Sher J.B. Singh, a young Sikh American, can at last feel vindicated in his battle for religious expression - a fight that began the day after Sept. 11, when authorities abruptly yanked him off an Amtrak train under a cloud of suspicion that he might have aided and abetted radical Islamic terrorists.

Though it became clear right away that Mr. Singh had no involvement in the plot, his ordeal did not end until last week, when the city of Providence, R.I., dropped charges that he had been carrying a concealed weapon. The weapon: his kirpan, a knife many Sikhs wear as a symbol of their faith in God.

Singh's case, along with at least 200 post-Sept. 11 hate crimes directed at other Sikhs, shows how little many Americans know of the world's fifth largest religion, which has no connection to Islam. But Singh's eventual victory - and the involvement of people of other faiths in a letter-writing campaign to ask the city to drop the charges - also signals Americans' willingness to stand up for religious liberties in the face of groundshaking events such as the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We appreciate that the city acknowledged that Sikhs are part of the society and recognized that our kirpan is essential to us," says Singh, a telecommunications engineer.

The past 1-1/2 months have galvanized the US Sikh community. With 300,000 adherents, its leaders are working to educate the US public - and to enlist authorities to ensure that Sikhs' religious rights are not trampled by investigators, airline personnel, or hate-motivated individuals.

Perhaps because of such efforts, incidents of bias and harassment have begun to abate, says Amardeep Singh, legal counsel for the Sikh Coalition, which has joined other Sikh organizations in urging federal agencies to address hate crimes and profiling issues.

Still, these times have been harrowing for some Sikhs. Two weeks ago, for example, Swaranjit Kaur Bhullar, a San Diego woman, was at a red light when two men on a motorcycle pulled up next to her car and stabbed her, saying, "This is what you get for what you've done to us." She was saved when another car drove up and the men fled.

Last week in Seattle, a Sikh man was beaten with a baseball bat. Firebombs were thrown into a Cleveland temple. On Sept. 15, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a father of three, was killed outside his gas station in Phoenix, in what police said was clearly a hate crime.

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