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Local victim of religious persecution will join Pope Francis for 9/11 memorial

Satpal Singh knows firsthand the horror of religiously motivated violence: More than 30 years ago in his native India, he was beaten unconscious and thrown off a train by an angry mob that hated him because he is a Sikh.

The near-death experience could have soured Singh’s outlook on religion’s place in the world. Instead, it did just the opposite. Singh spent years learning about other religions and developing friendships with people of other faiths, while also dedicating more time to his own faith tradition through prominent leadership posts in the World Sikh Council. His passion for interfaith harmony now has led him to a rare opportunity.

Later this month, the University at Buffalo professor and longtime Amherst resident will join Pope Francis for a special interfaith memorial service at the 9/11 memorial site in New York City.

“It’s a great honor and a great privilege,” Singh said. “I have developed a huge admiration for him, so I feel particularly honored for that opportunity.”

Singh was attacked on a train during four days of anti-Sikh riots in 1984 that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 Sikhs. He and his family left India and eventually settled in Western New York, where he is an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology who has won awards for his undergraduate teaching. He has been at UB since 1989, and he’s been active in the local, national and international Sikh communities, including serving as chairman of the World Sikh Council–American Region and as chairman of the organization’s interfaith committee, a role that has engaged him in a longstanding dialogue with Catholic interfaith leaders.

Auxiliary Bishop James Massa of the Diocese of Brooklyn, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, reached out to Singh more than a month ago to see if he would be interested in participating at the 9/11 memorial event. Singh said he hopes the event highlights the positive aspects of religion and helps bring people together.

“After that incident, I have made it a mission of my life to work toward interfaith harmony and peace,” he said.

Western New York will be heavily represented when the United States introduces itself to Pope Francis for the first time.

Hundreds of area residents are traveling to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia for a mere glimpse of the pontiff during his first-ever American tour, Sept. 22-27. Singh is among a few of them who will get much more than a glimpse. With 10 other faith leaders from a variety of traditions, he is scheduled to deliver a brief prayer alongside Francis at a “Multireligious Meeting for Peace” on Sept. 25 inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz also will get a closer view of the pontiff than most. The Buffalo nun was selected to attend the papal address to a joint session of Congress inside the U.S. Capitol building on the morning of Sept. 24. Rep. Brian Higgins invited Rzadkiewicz to join him for the event, which will be the first time a pope has addressed Congress.

“I’m his guest. I almost fell off my chair when he invited me,” said Rzadkiewicz, director of the Response to Love Center, a Catholic human service agency on the East Side of Buffalo. “I really was overwhelmed, and I just said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Rzadkiewicz ran into Higgins at a charity walk on behalf of the Food Bank of Western New York in August, and the congressman called her the next day with the offer, she said.

Rzadkiewicz regularly works with the poor and disenfranchised, and many Response to Love clients, even if they’re not Catholic, are as excited as she is about the pope’s visit, she said.

“He’s a shining example for these people, the way he embraces the poor,” she said. “I feel I’m carrying so many people with me and that’s the joy of this whole experience.”

Does she expect to meet the pope?

“I really don’t know. I know he’ll be in the chamber and you never what the Holy Father is going to do,” she said. With Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, Rzadkiewicz will attend the canonization Mass for Blessed Junipero Serra in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Malone and other U.S. bishops will join with the pope for midday prayer in St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Sept. 23, and he is scheduled to be part of a small meeting of fellow bishops of New York State with the pope in New York City on Sept. 24

Fifteen “papal lottery” winners from Western New York will be among a small throng of people greeting the pope on the West Lawn of the Capitol following his Congressional address. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., gave away 100 pairs of tickets, randomly drawing from among 11,000 state residents who entered the lottery.

Schumer said the audience for the lottery winners will be “a little like going to St. Peter’s.”

Andy Ippolito of Fredonia was grateful for the opportunity. He received an unexpected call on Aug. 28 from Schumer’s office saying that he won a pair of tickets. It was the same day he retired from his job at Erie 2 BOCES.

“I said to my wife, ‘You want to go see the pope?’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah, right,’ ” Ippolito recalled.

The longtime Catholic wasn’t kidding around, knowing that with the tickets they would be able to get close enough to see the pontiff.

“If he’s a half-mile away, that’s still a lot closer I would be to see him than at any other time,” he said.

Huge crowds are anticipated in all three cities for Francis, whose simple lifestyle, down-to-earth manner and emphasis on serving the poor have resonated with many Americans.

Ippolito likes Francis’ basic message of treating other people as you would like to be treated.

“He not only speaks to, but he almost speaks for the everyday common Catholic,” said Ippolito. “He speaks in a way in which you know he’s experienced a lot of what he’s talking about.”

Without the tickets, Ippolito doubted that he would have tried to head to New York, Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia, because there would be no guarantee of getting anywhere near the pontiff. “Probably not, dealing with that many people,” he said.

Nonetheless, hundreds of Catholics from Western New York are heading to the three cities, sans tickets, but with plenty of enthusiasm.