When a Sikh leader caused brief panic in St. Peter’s Square

As of this writing, it is still unclear what motivated Wade Michael Page, 40, to attack a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb earlier this month and shoot 10 people, killing six before turning his 9 mm pistol on himself. 

He had performed with several bands associated with white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups, and some speculate that he confused the turbaned and bearded Sikhs with Taliban-like Muslims. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what his thought process was. Six people are dead and many others’ lives have changed forever. 

But the Sikhs undeniably have had to face a whole lot of misunderstanding and fear, particularly since 9/11. 

I saw that in Rome a week after the terrorist attacks, while covering the weekly general audience of the pope with tens of thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. 

One of the world’s leading Sikh gurus, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, showed up unannounced in the square with about two dozen equally bearded and turbaned followers, all wearing their ornamental eight-inch daggers. He said he expected to be taken directly to Pope John Paul II. 

Sikh mourning
Members of a Michigan Sikh community gather Aug. 8 for a memorial service and candlelight vigil outside Gurdwara Sahib-Hidden Falls Temple in Plymouth in memory of the victims of a mass shooting Aug. 5 at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis. CNS photo

It caused a momentary panic among the Italian and Vatican security personnel, who instantly descended on the group and kept them from passing a crowd barrier. 

There was lots of anxious walkie-talkie communication, and lots of awkward communication in stilted English and Italian between the police and the Indian nationals. 

I recently looked up the story I wrote about the incident: 

“Through his personal secretary, Singh told Catholic News Service he wanted to meet the pope to join in his prayers for peace and his condemnation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. 

“‘He’s condemned the American incident and has directed all Sikhs in the world to pray in all ‘gurda waras’ (Sikh temples) for the persons who died and also to pray to God for peace,’’ said the secretary, Pirthipal Singh.” 

In the entourage was Harwant Singh, head of Italy’s Sikh community, who told me he was hoping that the pope would condemn a spate of aggression against Sikhs in the United States and other countries after the attacks. 

The standoff in the square eventually ended when the Sikhs declined an offer to be allowed (with their daggers) into the audience seating area. 

The guru left offended despite a ranking Vatican security agent’s repeated apologies for any perceived discourtesy, and insistence on the need for protocol in requesting an appointment with the pope. 

It wasn’t all bad, though. Half the Sikh entourage went straight to the nearby offices of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. They left happier, having taken steps toward opening new ties. 

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