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Hate crime reports up in wake of terrorist attacks

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Reports of hate crimes against Muslims and southeast Asians have risen exponentially across the U.S. in the wake of Tuesday's terror attacks. The backlash has prompted Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to ask President Bush Sunday to ensure the safety of Sikhs living in the United States.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it received more than 300 reports of harassment and abuse from Tuesday through Thursday night, nearly half the number it received all last year. Khalid Iqbal, director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says cases range from families being spat and yelled at, "Go back to your country," to assaults on people and businesses.

In Mesa, Arizona, a man was charged with first-degree murder Sunday in connection with a series of shootings that police said could be a racially-motivated response to last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Mesa police said Francisco Roque, 42, was being held on a $1 million bond in the killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, a Chevron gas station owner. Sodhi, from Punjab, India, was shot to death while doing landscaping outside his business Saturday afternoon.

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Many Sikhs believe he is the first to have been killed in retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Family members, friends, and members of the Indian Sikh community say they are being targeted because their men wear turbans and long beards as part of their religious dress, a tradition that's lasted for 500 years.

"Our appearance looks like Osama bin Laden and those of Afghanistan," said friend Suminder Sodhi, alluding to the man the U.S. has branded the "prime suspect" in the attacks. "But we are different people from Muslim people. We have different beliefs, a different religion."

A leader of the Phoenix Sikh community says the media didn't help to dispel bias when they broadcast the arrest of a Sikh aboard an Amtrak train on Wednesday. He was charged with carrying a knife, but was later cleared of any connection to the terrorist attacks.

"And the media just showed that over and over and over," said Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa, a minister of the Guru Nawak Dwara Sikh temple in Phoenix. "It sets us up."

"We strongly condemn the attacks on the U.S.," she said. "The American Sikh community and Sikhs worldwide feel we not only share Americans' grief, but we have some killed in the World Trade Center, too."

Suminder Sodhi, who is not related to the victim, said just the day before the shootings, the two friends were working on setting up a news conference to discuss the Sikh community's reaction to the terrorism attacks -- and to allay public fears that Sikhs have no connection to bin Laden. They were trying to get in touch with Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Sodhi's brother Rama Sodhi says they had been warned by well-meaning customers that they should be careful.

Sodhi is survived by three sons and daughters. The 49-year-old former taxi driver was known for giving candies out to children at the gas station.

Attacks on Sikhs have also been reported elsewhere in the United States.

They include a Queens, New York man who was shot in the forehead by a BB gun as he left a temple. He had gone there to pray soon after the attacks. And a Fairfax, Virginia man was nearly driven off the road by two vans on his way to donate blood.

A Hindu temple was also firebombed in Matawan, New Jersey last week.

Sikh Dharma's official website -- -- reports 133 incidences of hate crimes and harassment since Tuesday.

Attacks on Muslim-Americans have also been reported.

In Texas, mosques in Irving and Denton were attacked last week in the wake of the terror attacks.

Iqbal said while he thinks the media are more responsible in their coverage of last week's terrorism attacks, he believes they still carry subtle biases against Muslim-Americans.

"When I see reports of Osama Bin Laden or Afghanistan, what images to I see? The call for prayers and Muslim men and women praying with their Muslim attire. It not only hurts me, but my children," he said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said there are an estimated 7 million Muslims living in the United States; about 1.2 billion worldwide.

The group recorded over 138 media reports fingering Islamic extremists as the culprit during the week of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, he said. And it was repeated again after the crash of TWA Flight 800 the year after.

Attacks on Muslims and mosques are often triggered by news reports, the group said, from the latest violence in the Middle East, the destruction of the Taliban statues in Afghanistan, to terrorist attacks such as the ones on Tuesday.

"I urge you to try and understand -- for everybody to understand what each other's religion is so we can live in harmony with each other," Iqbal said.

Iqbal did point to something good coming out of last week's tragedy.

Some Muslims in Seattle had been afraid to go to mosque all week, and when they went, they found non-Muslims standing there with flowers.

One woman had even approached Iqbal asking, "What can we do?"

"And when I told her, women are looked at and targeted mostly because of their recognizable headscarves and veils, she said she'll dedicate Monday to wearing a headscarf in solidarity. It touches my heart."

On Sunday, the Islamic Society of Denton in Texas, which suffered only minor damage by the Molotov cocktail attack last week, held a prayer vigil. Joining the Muslim prayer were the city mayor and 15 other church groups. "It is a gathering of peace, prayer and friendship. Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian..." Irfan Ali, a member of the mosque, said, trailing off.

The day before, the mosque received a gift from the student body of the University of North Texas: 50 posters with greetings, flowers, condolences and prayers. The student body president had delivered it in person, Ali said.

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