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Local Sikh group using billboards to spread message

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    Reading Eagle: Krissy Krummenacker

    Shivinder Singh Athwal leads a group that has posted billboards in Berks County that invite people to learn more about Sikhism. This billboard is along Route 222 just north of Route 61.

    Those who worship in a Bethel Township temple believe in peaceful coexistence with people of other faiths, an activist says.

    By Rebecca VanderMeulen, Reading Eagle

    They wear beards and turbans, but they're not Muslims.

    And they have nothing to do with the violence being done around the world by Muslim extremists from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the bloodshed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Lebanon.

    They are Sikhs and Lehigh County resident Shivinder Singh Athwal, who practices his faith in a Berks County temple, wants to make the distinction clear.

    In January he founded a group called the World Sikh Syndicate, which has begun posting billboards around Berks County to educate people about Sikh beliefs, such as peace, equality and justice.

    “Non-Sikhs should be aware of who we are, what we believe in,” Athwal said.

    That can be a difficult task.

    According to Athwal, many people confuse Sikhs with Muslims or Hindus.

    Even the Berks County Yellow Book fosters confusion, he said, noting that the book erroneously lists the Bethel Township temple he attends the Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Northeast Pennsylvania as a mosque.

    Athwal moved to Breinigsville on Sept. 1, 2001. After the terrorist attacks 10 days later, he couldn't go shopping without being harassed, he said.

    “I would go to the mall and people would shout, ‘Osama, go to hell,' ” he said.

    Athwal hopes there won't be another attack in the U.S. by Muslim extremists.

    But if there is, he doesn't want Sikhs including the 100 families who attend the Bethel temple to be the targets of harassment.

    Ahmed Abou Odaiba, imam for the Islamic Center of Reading, agreed that people should know that Sikhs aren't Muslims and vice versa.

    But he also said that people should know, too, that the Muslim religion promotes peace.

    He pointed to several verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that teach peace and tolerance of other religions. The only violence Islam allows is self-defense, he said.

    “I am so, so, so sad because people think Islam is like blood,” Odaiba said.

    He blamed the terrorism associated with some Muslims on political and social issues, not the teachings of their religion.

    Islamic Center President Elsayed “Steve” Elmarzouky said the Sikh group's billboards don't bother him.

    “I know what I am and what I believe,” he said.

    Athwal thinks the syndicate's education campaign is working. About a half-dozen people have e-mailed the group, and other local Sikhs have talked about it with their neighbors.

    “Wherever they are living people mention them (the billboards) and talk to them about it,” he said.

    The group also plans to set up a Web site and do charity work, he said.

    Athwal stressed that Sikhism does not oppose any other religion.

    “We are not against anyone,” he said. “If you're a Christian and you're a good Christian, that's good for us. If you're a Muslim and you're a good Muslim, that's good for us.”

    Contact reporter Rebecca VanderMeulen at 610-371-5015 or

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