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Sikhs pray around smoldering temple ruins

The sound of firefighters shooting water onto the smoldering wood frame of the Sikh Cultural Society could not drown out the voices of hundreds of Sikhs who gathered in the street to pray Friday night in the shadow of their temple.

Sitting cross-legged on squares of plywood donated by a local businessman, more than 200 Sikhs transformed 97th Avenue between 117th and 118th streets into a gurdwara, unwilling to let the fire that devastated their temple stop their Friday night service.

Giani Hardev Singh, the temple’s head priest, led the session, surrounded by young boys who sang hymns from the Sikh holy book, known as the Guru Granth Sahib. The sound of an accordion-like instrument called a harmonium could be heard above the smattering of water hitting the temple.

“The building is burning, but our prayers continue,” said Gurnam Singh following the service. “We’re praying to God to give us enough strength so we can overcome what happened.”

On Sunday, Sikhs took their prayers to the gymnasium of nearby St. Benedict Joseph Labre Parish school.

The daylong service began in a peaceful manner but was interrupted near the end by a disturbance apparently sparked by a longstanding dispute between two men. Later that night a car belonging to the president of the Sikh Cultural Society was fired on by a B.B. gun.

In keeping with their tradition of eating before prayer, the Sikh volunteers cooked up huge pots of spicy lentils, which were served with steaming roti to worshipers in a gymnasium balcony.

Gurbux Singh and his son Jagdeep Singh, who less than two days earlier had jumped to safety from a second-floor window of the burning temple, sat on stage playing instruments and singing hymns as a steady stream of worshipers filled the gymnasium.

Harnam Singh Khalsa, a priest who escaped the fire, offered words of comfort to the worshipers.

“You came over here with so much pain, but you came,” he told the crowd in Punjabi. “You’re sharing the pain with all the community and thinking about how the gurdwara will be rebuilt.”

Emotions have been running high within the Sikh community since Friday. The peaceful service was cut short toward the end by a fight that broke out during a speech by Dr. Amarjit Singh, a retired professor visiting from Washington, D.C.

He compared the Sikhs and their gurdwara to the mythical phoenix, saying they would rise from the ashes. But he was interrupted by society members Kabul Singh and Harbhajan Singh Dhillon, who grabbed the microphone, calling him a traitor.

A shoving match ensued and a crowd quickly gathered around the podium, trying to break up the clash. Women grabbed their children and ran toward the back of the room. As chaos gripped the gymnasium floor, 10 teenage girls who had been sitting on stage began signing kirtans, or traditional songs. With tears streaming down their faces, they raised their voices, striving to be heard above the commotion on the floor.

Witnesses said the fight stemmed from a longstanding dispute between Dhillon and Amarjit Singh but would not elaborate.

On Sunday night, somebody shot out three windows of Sikh Cultural Society President Bulwinder Singh’s Lincoln Navigator with a B.B. gun, police said, but it was not clear if that incident was related to the gymnasium brawl.

Meanwhile, even as Sikhs prayed in temporary venues, leaders of the Sikh Cultural Society were making plans to return services to the temple grounds. As soon as fire officials declared the area safe, officials said they planned to set up a permanent tent structure in an empty lot behind the temple’s charred remains.

But Harnam Singh Khalsa was looking forward to a new, permanent spiritual home.

“You should not worry about how the gurdwara will be made,” he said to the worshipers crowding the gymnasium floor. “God will help us. He will see that this gurdwara comes up more magnificently.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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