Pakistani Sikhs open temple after 73 years, risking attacks

Peshawar, Pakistan — An armed policeman stood guard outside the 300-year-old Sikh temple, known as a gurdwara, in northwest Pakistan. He kept a watchful eye on everyone who passed him on the narrow street, looking for a suspicious gesture, or a bulge beneath the clothes that hints at a hidden gun or a bomb.

Earlier this month, the gurdwara in Peshawar's crowded Old City opened its doors to worshippers for the first time in 73 years. The reopening was celebrated by Pakistan's tiny Sikh minority, but security is a constant concern.

On Friday, a Sikh leader and provincial lawmaker was shot and killed outside his home in a remote area in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, some 140 kilometers (86 miles) from Peshawar. The murder of Sardar Suran Singh devastated the Sikh community and heightened their fears of militant attacks.

It also added to human rights activists' despair over rising violence against religious minorities in Pakistan.

"It is tragic, but this is the trend in Pakistan right now. It is increasingly intolerant," said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the shooting of Sardar Suran Singh, but police disputed their claim, blaming the shooting on political rivalry and saying they had arrested the culprit. There was no response from the Taliban, who often make unsubstantiated claims.

Peshawar is a deeply conservative city at the foot of the mountainous Khyber Pass — once a popular route for traders and tourists travelling to nearby Afghanistan, now the focus of an extremist insurgency. Militants have attacked Peshawar schools, killing children as they studied, bombed buses of government workers and attacked Christians in their churches.

The newly-opened gurdwara has a 24-hour Sikh Security detail as well as police guards, but their Muslim neighbors believe an attack is inevitable.

"Security is very necessary ... for the people who want to come here for prayers without any fear," said Gurpal Singh, security chief for Peshawar's Sikh community.

Gohar Iqbal, a bookseller who works at a busy stall opposite the temple was certain the building would be targeted by militants. "We are worrying because of the children if something happens," he said, gesturing to the white cement building that houses a girls' high school, which abuts the gurdwara.

Few in this overwhelmingly Muslim neighborhood welcomed the gurdwara's opening. Apart from the security risks, many simply don't want Sikhs in their midst. The Sikhs that lived in the area and attended the gurdwara left when it closed in the 1940s.

It is not known how many Sikhs live in Pakistan today. The vast majority migrated to India in 1947, the year Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent. The CIA Factbook estimates that 3.6 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are non-Muslims, including Sikhs, Christians and Hindus.

Sikhs are among the smallest minorities. They are easily identifiable because of their tightly wound and often colorful turbans, and because they share the surname Singh.

Many of the Sikhs living in Pakistan are internally displaced, having fled their traditional homes in Pakistan's tribal regions as the threat posed by militants increased.

As the Taliban grew in strength in tribal regions such as Orazkai and Bajour, Sikhs were forced to pay protection money to local militant leaders or were killed, Yusuf at HRCP said.

Two years ago, extremists in the area swore allegiance to the Islamic State group. IS militants routinely video the brutal killings of non-Muslims in their territory.

Charanjeet Singh, a volunteer at the gurdwara and a community spokesman, fled his home in Orazkai several years ago.

He spoke to The Associated Press from inside the cavernous prayer hall of the gurdwara. Inside the sprawling compound, most of the buildings are crumbling — only the ornately carved prayer hall has been renovated.

Still, remnants of its former glory are visible — a small arch made up of odd-shaped blocks of stone, known as Waziri bricks, remains from the original structure laid around 300 years ago.

Charanjeet Singh said the community had been battling government intransigence and local resistance since 2012 to reopen the gurdwara.

In the 73 years it stood empty, the gurdwara was administered by the government's Evacuee Trust, an organization that looks after properties vacated by those who left for India during partition in 1947. Sometimes the buildings are returned to their original owners — as happened with the gurdwara — and at other times they are given to those who migrated from India to Pakistan, provided they can prove they owned property of a similar value in India.

Under the Pakistani government's guardianship, the gurdwara went through many incarnations. At one point, it housed a vocational school and it has been used for private homes. Several members of the Evacuee Trust still work and live there.

Despite receiving a chilly reception from their Muslim neighbors, the Sikhs of the gurdwara are giving shelter to an elderly Muslim woman.

In one of the ramshackle buildings lives Begum Shafqat Ara, a diminutive old woman who believes her age to be around 90. She has lived in the gurdwara for some 60 years. She never married and taught at the vocational school, where she continued to live after she retired.

"I didn't have anywhere to go, no family. This is my home," she told AP, sitting on the purple carpeted floor of the gurdwara's prayer hall.

Charanjeet Singh says Ara will stay. The Sikh community takes care of her and has promised to continue to do so for as long as she lives. Ara smiled a mostly toothless grin as she heard this and affectionately rested her hand on the knee of a nearby Sikh volunteer who had helped her to the prayer hall.

Despite the dangers they face, Charanjeet Singh said they will not capitulate to the militants. "If we do, they win," he said. "We are fully determined we will keep our holy places open."