OAK CREEK, Wis. — All of India shares the pain of Wisconsin Sikhs as they grapple with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a suburban Milwaukee temple, the country's foreign minister said Thursday during a visit to the temple.
S.M Krishna, India's external affairs minister, Nirupama Rao, the country's ambassador to the United States, and Dutta Toma, counsel general of India in Chicago, toured the temple in Oak Creek for about an hour and half. Krishna addressed about 150 Sikhs in the temple's hall, reassuring them that the Indian government and its people were behind them. The Sikh faith has roughly 27 million followers worldwide, and the vast majority live in India.
"I convey the sympathy of a billion people," he said, referring to India's total population. "I come here not only to offer prayers at this sacred temple but to express our deepest condolences."
The Sikh community is still struggling to come to grips with the shocking attack on Aug. 5. Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran and white supremacist, arrived at the temple before Sunday services and opened fire with a 9 mm handgun.
He killed six worshippers and injured three others. He also wounded Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy as the officer responded to the scene. Page killed himself minutes later, after he was wounded in a firefight with another officer.
Page's motives remain unclear. The FBI declared the attack an act of domestic terrorism but is still investigating what drove Page and whether he had any help. Milwaukee FBI spokesman Leonard Peace said Thursday that probe is still ongoing and declined further comment.
Sikhs contend they're often mistaken for Muslims because they wear beards and turbans. Temple members pushed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing last month to start collecting data on hate crimes against Sikhs.
Still, reminders of the shooting were everywhere in the temple Thursday. Banners signed by hundreds of well-wishers plastered the walls. A piece of paper with the direct number to the Oak Creek Police Department hung on a bulletin board, and an armed private security guard patrolled the parking lot.
The dignitaries stopped at Froedtert Hospital to visit Punjab Singh, a shooting victim who remains in serious condition, then moved on to the temple. The group got a warm welcome replete with handshakes and bowed heads.
They then filed into the temple's main hall. The congregation sat cross-legged on the floor as Krishna relayed the condolences of the Indian government and people. He said the shooting was even more tragic because it took place in a place of worship and peace.
"All right-thinking people have condemned this dastardly act," he said. "The entire Indian nation and government are behind you, and the entire United States government and people are behind you."
Rao and Tuma did not speak.
Temple trustee Harcharan Gill then led the group around the building, explaining how Page mounted his attack. Then Krishna, Rao and Toma spent about fifteen minutes meeting behind closed doors with the victims' families.
Afterward Krishna held a brief news conference in the temple's foyer, telling reporters he appreciated that President Barack Obama expressed his condolences to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is a Sikh. Again he told temple members "the whole nation is behind you. The whole of India is behind you and can rest assured we will stand united with you."
Rao said the entourage admired perseverance of the victims' families and promised to help them.
Rahul Dubey, the 26-year-old godson of temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, whom Page killed after Kaleka attacked him a butter knife, said he appreciated the visit, calling it a "good thought for the Indian government."
He said the congregation has been living a nightmare since the shootings. He called Page a psychopath but insisted the Sikhs don't hate him.
"Forgiveness, that's what we do," Dubey said. "We practice peace."
Kaleka's brother, Jagjit Singh Kaleka, said his brother died a martyr and met his death with courage. He wasn't impressed with all the pomp and circumstance, calling the visit a token political gesture.
"I really don't expect anything from them," he said.