Members of a small Sikh congregation in Santa Rosa expressed gratitude Monday to a critically wounded Wisconsin police officer and empathy for the man accused of shooting to death six Sikhs at a temple south of Milwaukee.
"We are sad but not angry," said Gurdeep Singh Walia of the Sikh Temple of Santa Rosa.
Sitting on the carpeted floor of their modest temple, known as a Gurdwara, about a dozen Sikhs — all wearing turbans or bandanas on the heads — discussed the horror in Oak Creek, Wis., in remarkably measured tones.
"This day is tragic," said Gobind Singh Khalsa. "It's a matter of misunderstanding who we are as a community."
Sikhs, members of the world's fifth-largest religion founded more than 500 years ago in India, end their prayers "wishing for the safety and health of everybody" regardless of religion, race or creed, Balbir Singh Nijjar said.
The Sikhs credited Oak Grove Police Lt. Brian Murphy, critically wounded in the shooting, with limiting the bloodshed and saving lives.
"Our prayers and our heart goes out to the aggressor, too, and to his family," said Lukhbir Singh Gill.
He called the suspect, Wade Michael Page, 40, who was fatally shot by another officer, "a confused soul."
"I harbor no ill will toward him," said Hardeep Singh Gill, Lukhbir's son, saying Page's animosity was "not just directed at Sikhs but anyone who was different from him. I feel sorry for him."
Media reports have suggested Page may have mistaken the Sikhs for Muslims, a prevalent error since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
About 700 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs have been reported since, according to the Sikh Coalition. A 2010 survey by the organization revealed 69 percent of turban-wearing Sikh students in the San Francisco area said they've been bullied because of the way they look, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Both Gills, who are Asian Indian, said they have not personally experienced any discrimination.
"That's one of the great things about Sonoma County," Hardeep Gill said.
But Khalsa, a American Sikh who converted to the faith, said he has been taunted by people calling him "Bin Laden" and saying "go back to your country."
Khalsa, as a baptized Sikh, wears a white turban and long beard, along with a steel bracelet and a Kirpan, a short ceremonial sword. He said Sikhs need "to communicate more of who we are as a community."
They also remain vigilant against attacks like Sunday's, based on a long history of persecution, much like Jews and Christians, Lukhbir Gill said.
The Santa Rosa congregation, founded in 2002, has about 100 members, mostly Asian Indians who are business and professional people. Their temple is a converted modular home, with a bright flower garden in the front yard, off Todd Road in a ranching area west of Stony Point Road.
Sikhism, founded in 1469, counts more than 30 million adherents worldwide and 500,000 in the United States. Sikhs believe in one God for all people, full equality for men and women and a rejection of rituals, such as fasting, pilgrimage and idol worship.
Their faith is embodied by Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the "eternal guru" who is both spiritual head and the recorded scriptures of the religion.