20 November 2008

"In Jesus' Name"

I have written in this blog about many Sikh issues. Some are tragic, some funny, some disgusting, some just plain strange. This one is sad, hurtful in yet another way.

Imagine that you, after proudly tying your dastaar, decide to teach your children the value of selfless service, one of the greatest, most beautiful of Sikh - or any other group's - values. So you and your spouse go to your local community's Union Mission, a place that feeds people too poor to feed themselves. Your intention is to make a donation and to also offer your children's service to help out.

This is a lovely picture of a family wishing to contribute to the welfare of the community, the picture of the kind of citizens we Sikhs should all aspire to be.

Now, imagine that the receptionist, instead of welcoming your service tells you that you are in the United States, so take off your turban! Then further imagine the head of the mission refusing your handshake, telling you to go away, we don't want your donation if you're wearing a turban.

Sounds impossibly rude, eh? Well, rude it most certainly is, but unfortunately, not impossible.

This is the notice I got today from SALDEF:

No Turbans Allowed

Sikh American Expelled from North Carolina Food Bank for Practicing his Faith; SALDEF Urges Interfaith Groups to Support Religious Freedom

Washington, DC, November 20, 2008 – Yesterday, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) learned that Mr. Gurnam Singh Khera—a Sikh American—was expelled from a community center in North Carolina because he wore a Dastaar (Sikh turban) in accordance with his faith.

The incident reportedly occurred at the Union Mission facility in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Mr. Khera and his wife went to the facility to make a donation for a Thanksgiving Food Drive and expressed interest in sending their children to the facility during the Thanksgiving holidays to serve food to the needy.

Upon entering the facility, Mr. Khera was told by a receptionist that “this is the United States” and that he needed to remove his Dastaar. When Mr. Khera attempted to explain the religious significance of the Dastaar, the receptionist refused to speak with him. When the Reverend in charge of the facility was summoned, Mr. Khera offered a handshake, but the Reverend reportedly refused to reciprocate and asked Mr. Khera and his wife to leave the facility, saying: “Go donate to some other place; we do not need your donations unless you remove your turban.”

Click here to read
the response from Union Mission to SALDEF’s letter.

The reply from: Ron Weeks [mailto: edirector@umrr.org]

Sent: Thursday, November 20, 2008 1:16 PM

RE: SALDEF - Accommendation of Sikh American Donors

We are a Christ-centered ministry that has been serving our communities "in Jesus' Name" from our own private facilities since 1951. We have a long standing policy that is clearly displayed on our lobby door that all males are required to remove their headgear. We feed meals every day and welcome the idea of others doing the same as our communities are certainly in need of more than we are able to do.

Being supported entirely by donations we don't turn them away. Couldn't his donation be used by the local Langar you speak of. I can think of several options; send it by another person, mail or internet...donate to another charity.

Rev. Ronald C. Weeks

Executive Director, Union Mission of Roanoke Rapids, NC, Inc


"In Jesus' name"?! I know something of the kind of person Jesus was and I can't believe he would condone such rude, hurtful acts in his name.

This reply is as small-minded and ungracious as I have ever read. And hurtful, as well. I'm afraid my response would be rude and most likely obscene. I do not respond well to this sort of gratuitous nastiness. This is certainly worthy of its own Sikhtoon, I think.

In a way, some might say this is no big deal. No one was assaulted, there are no torn turbans, no bruises, no dead bodies. On ly the pain of being disrespected, the attempt to humiliate us. I say "attempt to humiliate us" because this brother and sister were not humiliated; no one can humiliate me without my consent. Now, back to the SALDEF bulletin.

Every Sikh Gurdwara—place of worship—throughout the world has operated the Guru Ka Langar—free community kitchen—for more than five centuries. At each Guru Ka Langar, volunteers of all faiths serve free meals to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, gender, caste, or social standing. In keeping with this tradition, Sikh Americans throughout the United States have routinely partnered with churches and other places of worship to feed the homeless and provide relief to victims of natural disasters.

“We are profoundly offended that a community center would repudiate a Sikh American because of his religion and refuse his Thanksgiving donation,” said Rajbir Singh Datta, National Director of SALDEF. “Religious discrimination has no place in the United States, and we call upon Union Mission to issue a written apology to Mr. Khera and the entire Sikh American community and work with SALDEF on efforts to celebrate religious diversity in the cause of helping the less fortunate.”

SALDEF urges you to contact the Union Mission of Roanoke Rapids to express your disappointment.

We commend Mr. Gurnam Singh Khera for bringing this matter to our attention. If you or your children experience discrimination, harassment, or violence because of your Sikh faith, please notify SALDEF at legal@saldef.org or via phone at (202) 393-2700.


My last post talked about the horrors of life in Gaza Strip right now and the expulsion of journalists attempting to report on this gross violation of human rights there. I have received one comment in this blog and a couple of e-mails criticising me for being anti-Israel. I am not anti-Israel. I am anti-atrocity, whoever may be doing it. I am very gratified that I have not received a single complaint that "this is not a Sikh issue." Perhaps we as a people really have made some advancement and have come to realise that all humanitarian issues are Sikh issues. Thank you, readers!

I repeat:
Most of Gaza borders land controlled by Israel. The southern border, however is at Egypt. Egypt is a Muslim, Arab state. Why does Egypt not open its border for humanitarian help to its sisters and brothers dying in Gaza? Let me repeat: WHY DOES EGYPT NOT OPEN ITS BORDER FOR HUMANITARIAN HELP TO ITS SISTERS AND BROTHERS DYING IN GAZA!


Now several large media organisations have filed a protest against Israel, asking for reporters to again be admitted to Gaza.

From the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz:

Top media executives protest Israel's ban on journalists' entry to Gaza

for whatever reason, my link button isn't working. Here is the URL:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1039255.html
By The Associated Press

Leaders of the world's biggest media organizations filed a protest with Israel's prime minister Wednesday criticizing the government's decision to ban journalists from entering the Gaza Strip for the last two weeks.

The protest was the latest in a chorus of international criticism of Israel's Gaza closure, tightened after a five-month truce began unraveling about two weeks ago in a flurry of Israeli airstrikes against militants and Palestinian rocket barrages targeting Israeli towns.

Those signing the letter included Associated Press Chief Executive and President Tom Curley, Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, ABC News President David Westin, BBC News Director Helen Boaden and other top executives from CNN, the Canadian TV network CTV, the German broadcaster ZDF, and the French news service Agence France Presse.

"We are gravely concerned about the prolonged and unprecedented denial of access to the Gaza Strip for the international media," they wrote in the letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"We would welcome an assurance that access to Gaza for international journalists will be restored immediately in the spirit of Israel's long-standing commitment to a free press," reads the letter.

After a recent upsurge in Palestinian rocket fire, Israel closed off Gaza to all but the most vital supplies. The only people allowed in or out are urgent medical cases and a handful of humanitarian workers.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, confirmed that the letter had been received. Journalists were not being singled out, he said, but were affected by a broader decision to close the crossings:

"There is no policy to prevent the media from entering Gaza, and the minute the security situation allows for the normal functioning of the crossings, journalists, like all of the others who have been inconvenienced, will be able to return to using the crossings."

The Israeli government has long banned Israeli journalists from entering Gaza because of fears for their safety, but foreign reporters have been permitted to go in, even during times of heavy fighting. In the past two weeks, coverage in Gaza has been largely left to local Palestinian staffers and a handful of foreign journalists who entered before the closure went into effect, including two AP reporters.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry, said journalists would be allowed in only once Gaza militants stopped shooting and said Gaza was being adequately covered by reporters already there.

While he said journalists were not being targeted, Dror also said Israel was displeased with international media coverage, which he said inflated Palestinian suffering and did not make clear that Israel's measures were in response to Palestinian violence.

Israel pulled all of its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, a withdrawal that was followed by an increase in rocket fire and a takeover by the Islamic militants of Hamas, a group dedicated to Israel's destruction.

"Where Gaza is concerned, our image will always be bad," Dror said. "When journalists go in it works against us, and when they don't go in it works against us."

Dissatisfaction with coverage would not hold up in court as a reason to bar journalists, said Dalia Dorner, a retired Supreme Court justice who represents Israeli journalists as head of the Israeli Press Council. Only concerns that "grievous harm" could befall state security could provide the legal justification for the Defense Ministry's ban, she said.

Israel's Foreign Press Association, which represents international journalists operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, also has condemned the ban.

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said the ban is part of an Israeli policy of isolating Gaza internationally. "This stops outside parties from seeing the crisis taking place in Gaza," Hamad said.

Since violently seizing control of Gaza last year, Hamas sometimes has harassed journalists, in some cases beating reporters, seizing videotapes and raiding news offices.

The Gaza ban is the latest in a line of difficulties foreign journalists have encountered while covering the Israel-Palestinian conflict. International reporters inside Israel generally enjoy broad freedom, but must pass security checks to receive government certification and are subject to a military censor in all matters related to defense.

A number of journalists have been killed or injured by Israeli security forces during clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and reporters have also been subject to abuse by Palestinian security forces and kidnapped by militants.

The news executives' letter came as international criticism of the closure grew. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Olmert on Tuesday to express concern about a possible humanitarian crisis in Gaza, home to a largely impoverished population of 1.4 million. A group of 21 aid organizations also charged the closure was harming their Gaza operations. The current European Union president, France, issued an unusually strong protest saying the closure was a "disproportionate response" that would "collectively punish" Gaza's civilians.

Gazans are facing a shortage of basic goods and fuel. Restaurants and bakeries across the strip are closing as cooking gas runs out.