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Sikh families eager to return to Milwaukee temple

Flowers lie on the sign to the Sikh temple of Wisconsin where members were allowed 
to re-enter for the first time in Oak Creek, Wis., Thursday, Aug 9, 2012. The mass 
shooting last Sunday claimed six members of the temple. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Flowers lie on the sign to the Sikh temple of Wisconsin where members were allowed to re-enter for the first time in Oak Creek, Wis., Thursday, Aug 9, 2012. The mass shooting last Sunday claimed six members of the temple. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Sikh temple in Oak Creek is the center of Harpreet Singh's existence. The cab company owner visits almost every day. And when business takes him to the nearby Milwaukee airport, he makes a point to stop by and pay his respects.

However, neither Singh nor any of his fellow worshippers have been allowed to return in the five days since a white supremacist burst into the temple and fatally shot six people as Sunday services were about to begin. Federal investigators have roped off the building as they catalog the scene and search for clues.

"My life, it's wrapped around the gurdwara," Singh said, referring to the temple. "Our heart aches when we see it from a distance and are not able to get there."

Singh and other Milwaukee Sikhs understand the delay, but they are eager to go back to the house of worship that unites their community and symbolizes the depth of their faith.

The FBI wrapped up its investigation Thursday and allowed Sikh leaders and construction workers inside to repair bullet holes and other damage, clean up blood stains and repaint walls. Their goal is to reopen to everyone by Friday morning.

"We are anxious to return, but we really have no option or control or choice," said Dr. Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal, one of the community leaders. "They will finish the investigation, then hand it over. It doesn't matter how we feel."

Dhaliwal's attitude is shared by many of his fellow Sikhs. They are devastated by the shooting, and instead of reacting with anger or resentment toward law enforcement officials, they have turned inward, supporting each other.

The funerals for the six victims are scheduled for Friday morning at a nearby high school. Afterward, temple leaders hope to begin the traditional rite called "akhand path," a ceremony that involves a series of priests reading their holy book aloud from cover to cover. The process takes 48 hours.

The leaders plan to sit down with Oak Creek police next week to discuss whether the temple should develop additional security measures. That might involve hiring security guards, but one thing that will not change is offering access to the temple for people of all faiths, Dhaliwal said.

"We will still have the four doors open," he said, a reference to the Sikh belief that temples should have one open door in each direction to symbolize that everyone is welcome.

The peace of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin was shattered when 40-year-old Wade Michael Page opened fire with a 9 mm handgun and multiple magazines of ammunition.

In addition to the six dead, Page's attack wounded three people, including a responding police officer who was hit nine times in the parking lot. A second officer shot Page in the stomach from about 75 feet away. Page then killed himself with a bullet to the head.

While there is simmering anxiety over their lack of access to the temple, some Sikhs have said they're grateful that one FBI agent is himself a Sikh, who can advise investigators about religious sensitivities, such as securing the room where the temple's holy book is kept and where worshippers are not supposed to approach with their shoes on.

In the meantime, Singh said he is trying his best to compensate for the fact that the temple is off-limits. He drives as close as he can, bows his head in respect and pays homage to the departed souls that he believes still inhabit the building.

"I feel helpless not to be inside," he said. "I'm not angry, but I just wish there was something I can do to help."

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