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Ceremony Recalls 2001 Arson Attack on Sikh Temple Mistakenly Related to 9/11 Terrorists and Forgiveness that Followed

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Provided photo - Gobind Sadan
Weekend ceremony recalls 20th anniversary of burning of Gobind Sadan Sikh Temple and the reaction of forgiveness that followed from the Sikhs to the arson defendants. Shown here, a prayer vigil shortly after the temple was burned in 2001.

Two months ago memorials marked the 20th anniversary of the September Eleventh Terrorist attacks. This weekend marked 20 years since a hate crime at the Gobind Sadan Sikh Temple in Central Square that was linked to those attacks. Henry Meyer was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who investigated a fire at the temple, and the further tragedy of ‘why’.

“Once we identified the intent behind the starting of the fire, it was troubling because it was based in absolute no fact or basis whatsoever.  The Sikhs had no correlation or relationship whatsoever to the events leading up to 9/11.  It was incredibly sad to me.  It was ignorance in my opinion at the time that led to why the people did what they did to the Sikh people and this temple.”

Four teenagers were found to have been involved in the arson, associating the Sikhs, many of whom wear turbans, with the 9/11 terrorists. Two were eventually charged with criminals mischief, while two others were charged with arson; all four admitted to a hate crime in court. But what made the story truly memorable was the response from the Sikh community. Ralph Singh, who organized the weekend celebration, says forgiveness instead of vengeance came out of their philosophy of acceptance.

“By forgiving someone, you allow them to grow.  And Cassie is a wonderful example of how she had rebuilt her life, and 20 years later is a very successful travel nurse.  She said basically that it took someone who was feeling isolated and made them feel like they were a stronger member of community.”

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Provided photo - Gobind Sadan
Weekend gathering at Gobind Sadan in Central Square.

Suspect Cassie Philips, in a written statement shared with the gathering how the reaction changed her life.

“ I can’t thank this community enough for all the forgiveness and love given. Never in a million years would I have thought so many miracles and blessings could come from such negative acts,” Phillips wrote in a message for the ceremony.  “This loving kind community didn't only forgive me when I didn’t know how to forgive myself, but they lead me to the light.  These were the examples I needed in my life to grow!”

She says the strongest message she takes away is that parents and educators should teach about diversity of other cultures, and how we’re really all the same.

ATF Agent Meyer says the case stuck with him because of the truly unique response from the Sikh community.

“… and I was genuinely touched and moved by their ability to see past their anger and forego resentment, but in essence shower the people who were alleged to have done this with kindness and forgiveness.  And I think that led to an incredibly powerful and thorough recovery in the community.”

Retired County Court Judge Don Todd was Assistant District Attorney at the time. He was struck by the insistence by the Sikhs that any punishment of suspects included a chance for their redemption, something he says made him more compassionate as well.

"My initial reaction was one of anger that a house of worship was set on fire. But it became one of wonderment when I saw how the holy scripture (inside the temple) had been somehow spared damage. ... As we discussed the manners in which we could proceed (with the suspects' prosecution), it was astonishing to me that their overwhelming concern was for the future of the defendants. While (the Sikhs) recognized that there needed to be punishment of some sort, it was clear that it was important to them that it should also give the youth the opportunity for redemption and still be able to live a productive life," Todd shared in a video statement at the ceremony.

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Provided photo - Gobind Sadan
The Gobind Sadan temple was rebuilt and dedicated in 2008.

Ralph Singh says those that came to the celebration felt what is possible through acceptance of everyone.

“We’re all taught about forgiveness and love and being loved and all that, but it is present, can it be demonstrated in the world today, especially in the face of ignorance and hatred.  And what they experienced was the reality of the power of love and the reality of the power of forgiveness to accept everyone to be part of our community.”

The Gobind Sadan temple was rebuilt and dedicated in 2008.