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 CNS Story:

POPE-SIKHS Feb-29-2008 (910 words) With photos. xxxn

Security requirement to keep Sikhs from interreligious papal event

This is an example of a kirpan, a miniature sword required to be worn at all times by professed members of Sikhism. (CNS)

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Representatives of the world's fifth-largest religion, Sikhism, will not attend an interreligious meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Washington because the faith requires formally initiated members to wear at all times a miniature sword or dagger called a kirpan, and security concerns will bar kirpans from the room.

Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, confirmed the Secret Service would require Sikhs to leave behind their kirpans if they were to participate in the April 17 interfaith meeting that will be held at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.

Rather than compromise on religious tenets that treat wearing a kirpan as a sacred obligation for professed believers, Sikh leaders and representatives of the bishops' conference agreed they should quietly decline the invitation to participate in the meeting.

Catholic News Service learned of the development and confirmed the information with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the World Sikh Council-America Region.

Kirpans come in varying sizes and designs but typically are as small as a few inches long, with a blunt, angled blade and a pointed tip. They are usually worn in a sheath, beneath a Sikh's clothing.

Sikhs wearing kirpans, even those measuring a foot or more in length, have participated in interfaith gatherings with the pope at the Vatican, according to Father Francis Tiso, an associate director of the bishops' secretariat.

However, when Pope Benedict visits the United States as head of state of the Vatican, his security is primarily the responsibility of the U.S. Secret Service, which ruled out allowing anyone with a kirpan into the interfaith meeting.

As of Feb. 29, the Secret Service had not returned a call from CNS seeking an explanation of the requirement.

Dr. Anahat Kaur, secretary-general of the World Sikh Council-American Region, in a statement provided to CNS said the council was deeply disappointed "that the Secret Service was not able to accommodate the Sikh faith and calls upon it to respect the religious rights and freedoms of the Sikh community."

"The kirpan is one of the five articles of faith required of all formally initiated Sikhs," she said. "The kirpan -- literally meaning 'bringer of mercy' -- represents the Sikh commitment to resist oppression and injustice, but only in a defensive posture and never to initiate confrontation."

Kaur said Sikhs "have to respect the sanctity of the kirpan, especially in such interreligious gatherings. We cannot undermine the rights and freedoms of religion in the name of security."

Kirpans are one of five items that formally initiated Sikhs are required to carry with them as physical symbols of their faith. The others are: uncut hair, a wooden comb, a steel bracelet and a particular kind of undergarment.

A Sikh may be formally initiated at any age, a step akin to baptism. That process and the requirement to carry what are known as the "five Ks" for the items' formal names, are the same for both men and women.

Father Tiso likened Sikhs leaving behind their kirpans to Catholics agreeing to ignore the tenets of Catholicism in order to be able to participate in an interfaith event.

"You don't take your faith and check it at the door," Father Tiso said. "We wouldn't set aside the (Apostles') Creed for the dialogue."

Catholics and Sikhs in the United States have an ongoing dialogue, with its most recent session held in Washington in October.

Leaders from the two faiths have used the three annual sessions so far to discuss topics such as the value of holiness in both traditions and approaches to prayer.

The Sikh faith began in the 15th century in the Punjab region of India. It has more than 25 million adherents, the greatest number in India and Pakistan. There are about 500,000 Sikhs in North America.

Sikh beliefs emphasize prayer, honest work and honest living and include reincarnation, the equality of all humans, justice for the oppressed, charity and a commitment to peace. Sikhs accept the use of force only as a last resort.

About a dozen Sikhs were to be a part of the interfaith meeting, Father Tiso said. Not all the invitees were formally initiated members so would not have been wearing kirpans. But out of solidarity, the entire group will bypass the event, he said.

"They didn't want to compromise on matters of faith," he said.

Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Sikhs wearing kirpans were welcomed at the White House, but since then Secret Service restrictions have changed. Sikh leaders have declined invitations to events at the White House as well as the European Union Parliament because of such security requirements.

A 2004 press release from the World Sikh Council-America Region explained the decision not to participate in events for a White House commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib, the text considered the supreme spiritual authority of Sikhism.

"The WSC-AR has explained the significance of the kirpan (to White House personnel) and that asking Sikhs to remove their kirpan is not only offensive but is to deny them their legitimate right to practice their faith," it said.

Father Tiso said many Sikhs do remove their kirpans to meet air-travel security requirements, but that is viewed as a secular accommodation for a secular purpose, as opposed to the religious focus of the meeting planned with Pope Benedict.


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