Sunday, November 26th, 2006

Poster urges screeners to respect Sikh sword


More than two dozen followers have been arrested for carrying article of faith

By Matthew Artz, STAFF WRITER, The Argus

For observant Sikhs, car keys and loose change aren’t the only things to worry about when walking through metal detectors.

Their religion requires that they wear a small sword, called a Kirpan, usually slung above their left hip in a cloth casing.

The article of faith has been the source of hostile encounters with screeners at airports, courthouses and federal buildings, where several Sikhs have been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon.

To help avoid such encounters, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this week released a poster explaining the Kirpan and giving security screeners tips on diplomatically searching for and confiscating the sword.

The posters will be circulated at airports, border crossings and federal buildings across the country and should arrive in the Bay Area within the next few weeks, said Rajbir Datta, associate director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, D.C.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Sikh organization, which worked on the poster with federal officials, has dealt with about 30 instances of Sikhs’ being arrested for carrying a Kirpan. All of the cases have been dismissed, Datta said.

“We want law enforcement to understand the significance of the Kirpan, so they don’t view it as a weapon.”

Difficulties usually arise, Datta said, when Sikhs forget to either pack the religious sword in their luggage before going through airport security or leave it in their car when traveling to buildings with metal detectors.

The poster, which will be placed inside security offices, directs screeners to ask Sikhs if they are carrying a Kirpan and then request to inspect it. “If the Kirpan must be confiscated, explain the reason and handle the Kirpan with respect and care,” the poster says.

What happens next to the sword depends on the checkpoint, Datta said. For visits at prisons and several historic sites such as the Statue of Liberty, Sikhs can leave the Kirpan with security guards. At airports, the Kirpans must be stowed in luggage that is not carried into the cabin. At federal courthouses, they must be taken outside the building.

About 15 percent of Sikhs wear Kirpans. The swords typically have a 3- to 6-inch curved blade with ornate designs attached to a metal or wooden handle. Wearing the sword, which hangs from a shoulder strap or a neck chain for smaller blades, is an article of faith for observant Sikhs.

The Kirpan is rooted in the persecution Sikhs faced in South Asia and symbolizes the adherent’s duty to uphold justice, Datta said.

Sarabjit Cheema, vice president of the Sikh temple in Fremont, said no one from the temple has been arrested for wearing the Kirpan, but that many members have had uncomfortable moments at security checkpoints.

“They look at you with a strange kind of look,” she said of the screeners.

Before Sept. 11, Cheema said, metal detectors at airports didn’t always detect her Kirpan, allowing her to wear it on planes. These days, she grudgingly packs the sword in her luggage when flying and leaves it in her car when heading to a courthouse.

“I don’t feel good about having to remove it,” she said. “Hopefully one day people will be able to recognize its importance to us.”

[QL] Staff writer Matthew Artz covers Union City for the Argus. He can be reached at (510) 353-7003 or martz@angnewspapers.com.

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