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New York temple attack: People are scared, says priest

Last updated on: January 04, 2012 15:48 IST

George Joseph speaks to Ramesh Maharaj, the priest at the Hindu temple in New York, which was attacked by a firebomb on Sunday.

For the weekly Monday Shiv puja at the Hindu temple in Jamaica, Queens, the attendance is usually two dozen people.

On Monday, January 2, a day after a man threw a firebomb at the house, only four people turned up, Ramesh Maharaj, the Hindu priest who lives with his family inside the building, told

"The crude bomb did not explode or create any damage," he says. "The police acted quickly and increased the security around. But people are scared. My family is scared, but I am not. I trust in god," says Maharaj, 62.

The temple was one of four sites firebombed in Jamaica, Queens, one of New York City's boroughs, on Sunday night, the New York police said.

A house in Elmont, Long Island, an area close to New York City, was also attacked in similar fashion.

The attacks occurred between 8 pm and 10:15 pm on Sunday, January 1.

On Tuesday night, the police arrested and charged Ray Lazier Lengend, 40, of Queens Village, with five counts of criminal possession of a weapon, four counts of arson and one count of arson as a hate crime.

Lengend emerged from the 103rd precinct police station on Tuesday night in handcuffs and was taken away in an ambulance. Reports said he had made incriminating statements that implicate him in the arson attacks.

"I don't feel any animosity towards the attacker," says Maharaj, "I only feel sorry for him. He did it out of ignorance, and needs help."

A security camera at the temple captured a man throwing a crude bomb made of flammable material, possibly kerosene in a bottle.

Maharaj has seen worse. In 1994, the house and temple were destroyed in an arson attack. He had to rebuild it using his own resources. He was virtually a paraplegic then.

The police then accused him of setting off the fire and wanted to arrest him. His attorney intervened, asked the police to conduct an examination by an arson specialist.

The investigation located evidence for the attack from outside the house and temple. Still, Maharaj did not get any money from the insurance company.

A few years later, he was cured of being a paraplegic. "It was God's mercy," he says.

"If the building was damaged in the bombing this time, it would have been devastating," he says. "I have no insurance as I don't have any regular income though the mortgage has been paid."

Whatever devotees give as dakshina is his only source of livelihood.

Maharaj, whose great grandfather migrated from Uttar Pradesh to Trinidad, hails from a family of priests. He moved to the United States in the 1970s and started the temple in 1984 in the backyard of his home. He is licensed to conduct marriages and conducts services for other occasions too.

"People come and worship here," he says. "People from the Caribbean, Indians, mainstream Americans... come and join the services and puja."

His wife and two daughters live with him, but he was alone at home when the attack occurred.

Special pujas were conducted at the temple on New Year's Day. But the worshippers had left the temple long before the arson. A neighbour alerted him after seeing flames on the lawn.

Two bottles were thrown -- one hit the wall, another landed on the grass. It smelt of kerosene. Maharaj called the police. There are eight security cameras located around the temple. The attack was recorded on camera, which helped the police arrest the attacker quickly.

"My immediate thought was: Why Is this happening to me?" recalls Maharaj. "Then I heard reports of similar attacks on the police radio when the cops came."

The area around the temple is thickly populated. Why did the attacker select Maharaj's home though there is no signboard indicating it houses a temple?

"I don't know how he knew it was a temple. He must have heard about it. A lot of people know about it," the priest adds.

The temple has pictures and statues of Jesus, Mother Mary...

"I believe there is only one God," says Maharaj. "The Vedas say there is only one swami and he is nameless. The Gita too says that God is in everybody, all are embodiments of God."

At the Al-Khoei Islamic Centre, which was also attacked, Imam Maan Al Sahlani, an Iraqi immigrant, felt encouraged by the outpouring of public support.

"The incident has not affected daily work at the centre," he said. "As American Muslims, we are grateful for the support. As human beings, we should live in unity. People from India, Pakistan and the Middle East called to inquire about the incident."

In the attack on the centre, two flaming bottles were thrown at the entrance, causing a small fire shortly before 9 pm, when a service had just ended. There was little damage, the Imam said, but the attack caused concern among the congregation.

In pic: Ramesh Maharaj

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

George Joseph in New York