Spokane community leaders on Thursday denounced religious hate crimes after the Sikh Temple of Spokane was vandalized by a man who officials say mistakenly thought the temple was a mosque and was affiliated with the Islamic State group terror organization.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich was joined by two mayors, three city council members and representatives of other faiths in condemning the desecration Wednesday night and early Thursday of the temple at 1420 N. Barker Road.
“No hate will be tolerated in Spokane County,” Knezovich said at an afternoon press conference at the temple’s community building.
Jeffrey C. Pittman, 44, was arrested Thursday morning inside the temple after a short altercation with officers. He was wearing no clothing and holding a ceremonial sword from the temple, sheriff’s officials said.
Knezovich said Pittman told investigators he broke into the building through a side door because he was cold and hungry.
Once inside, Knezovich said, Pittman became convinced the temple was a mosque connected with IS, the group responsible for the brutal terrorist takeover of portions of Iraq and Syria and for a coordinated bombing in Paris, among other crimes.
Pittman was booked into Spokane County Jail on charges of armed burglary, malicious mischief and malicious harassment based on religious discrimination – Washington’s version of a hate crime.
About $30,000 in damage was done to the interior of the temple, according to temple leaders.
“Our hearts are broken,” said Subarna Nagra, a member of the temple.
Deputy Mark Gregory said officers were called to the temple around 5:45 a.m. Thursday and confronted the suspect, who was holding the sword and had wrapped himself in a blanket that was taken from the temple furnishings.
On Thursday afternoon, the sheriff was joined in condemning the hate by Mayor David Condon of Spokane, Mayor Rod Higgins of Spokane Valley, city council members from the two cities, the police chief of Spokane Valley, the Rev. James Waggoner, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities and others.
“Sikh values are intrinsic to who we are,” Condon said.
Higgins said, “This is not who the people of the Valley are. … I hope justice will be swift.”
Admir Rasic, a Muslim and member of the newly formed Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, said the desecration creates undue fear in the religious community and can be particularly difficult for children to understand.
Regina Malveaux, CEO of the YWCA in Spokane, said Thursday’s incident comes at a time when hate rhetoric has gotten more heated across the U.S.
The vandalism was discovered when one of the temple members arrived early Thursday to open the building and say prayers.
Gurjeet Singh Aujla, the priest at the temple, said the temple’s Sikh holy book was defaced and pages were ripped from it.
Sikhism, which originated in India, has about 20 million adherents worldwide. There are about 300 Sikhs living in the Spokane area, Nagra said.
The holy book contains the accumulated teachings of the first through 10th Sikh gurus.
The scripture in the Guru Granth Sahib holy book is considered an embodiment of the eternal guru, and as such, holds the sacred focal point of Sikhism.
“We believe this is the knowledge of our gurus,” Aujla said.
In Sikhism, the book is opened every morning and the priest selects a passage that becomes the focus of prayer and meditation that day.
In the evening, the book is returned to a bed just off the altar and put under covers to let the gurus sleep.
The altar, holy book and bedding were vandalized, Nagra said.
After Pittman was detained, temple members offered the suspect their traditional morning chai tea.
Nagra said temple members feel sympathy toward the man who appeared to have some type of illness affecting his judgment.
“I am definitely hurt,” she said. “At the same time, we are a compassionate community.”
The YWCA of Spokane said in a news release that “actions like this are indicative of growing Islamophobic sentiment across our nation, where there has been a steady increase in backlash and hate crimes targeting Muslim, Sikh, South Asian and Arab communities.” Nagra is a board member of that organization.
Nagra said in the news release, “The Sikh articles of faith, which include the turban and beard, show their commitment to equality, justice and freedom for all. These are not just Sikh values, they are American values.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to the temple as a mosque. The suspect believed he was in a mosque, which was the reason he gave for vandalizing the temple.