Sikhs choose daggers over event with pope

Vatican - Followers of a major Indian religion have been frozen out of an upcoming interfaith meeting with Pope Benedict XVI because of the group's insistence on wearing ceremonial daggers.

The meeting, scheduled for April 17 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center near Catholic University, originally included Sikhs, as well as Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist guests. But a guest list released yesterday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops substituted followers of another India-based religion — the Jains — in place of the Sikhs.

According to Sikh leaders, at issue was the Secret Service forbidding the wearing of the "kirpan," a dagger that is required dress for all Sikhs. Its followers liken its importance to their faith in the same way Orthodox Jewish men are required to wear a yarmulke.

Anahat Kaur, secretary general of the World Sikh Council/America Region near San Francisco, said Pope John Paul II met with kirpan-bearing Sikhs at the Vatican in January 2002.

"We were pretty disappointed," she said. "At an event meant to promote understanding between faiths, we would have had to renounce a fundamental tenet of our faith to attend. The Secret Service had every opportunity to investigate and vet the people coming and see whether we were safe to be there. We thought that would be enough."

Kirpans are only used in self-defense as a last resort, she added. Because kirpans are not allowed on airplanes, she said, many Sikhs will drive instead of fly. Numbered at more than 20 million adherents, Sikhism is the world's fifth largest religion. It has about 250,000 members in the United States.

A spokesman for the Secret Service said no weapon, no matter how sanctified its purpose, could be allowed within striking distance of a head of state.

"We have every respect for it as a religious artifact," said Eric Zahren, "but it's by definition a weapon even though that is not the intended use. And we have to answer for the security of the Holy Father while he is here."

Negotiations with the Sikhs had gone on for several months, he added.

"We have really tried to be accommodating, but this is a pretty standard and basic security measure," he said.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the group feels "bad about this" but that the groups involved "came to an impasse."

Ten to 15 Sikhs were to attend the papal audience, most of them veterans of a Catholic-Sikh dialogue begun in 2006. Catholic and Sikh youth met at a retreat at St. Paul's College in Northeast last fall.

The kirpan was instituted in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the 10 Sikh gurus who established the religion in northwest India. Men acquire the kirpan during a baptism ceremony whereby the dagger is used to stir a mixture of water and sugar crystals that each initiate must drink. He or she then pledges to live by the religion's moral standards.

From then on, a Sikh is expected to carry a kirpan at all times. In 2004, Kuldeep Singh, then chairman of the World Sikh Council, was refused admittance to the White House when he refused to give up his kirpan. A similar incident happened on May 31, 2006, when Sikh representatives were denied entrance to the European Union parliament in Brussels.