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Protesters Disrupt Historic Appearance by Hindu Clergyman in US Capitol


For the first time in U.S. Senate history, a Hindu clergyman delivered the chamber's daily prayer Thursday, but only after Capitol police removed several protesters who disrupted the session. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Rajan Zed, the director of interfaith relations at a Hindu temple in Reno, Nevada, stood before the Senate podium, dressed in a bright orange and burgundy robe, preparing to speak.

Suddenly, from the visitors' gallery above, protesters began to shout, prompting Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who was presiding over the Senate, to call for order.

PROTESTER: "We shall have no other gods before You. You are the One…"

CASEY: "The Sergeant at Arms will restore order in the chamber."

As Zed began his prayer, the protesters shouted again.

ZED: "Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme…"

PROTESTER: (unintelligible shouting)

CASEY: "The Sergeant at Arms will restore order in the Senate, in the chamber."

Two women and a man were handcuffed by police, and later charged with disrupting Congress, a misdemeanor offense. The Associated Press quotes the male protester saying he is a "Christian and patriot".

A conservative activist group, the American Family Association, has been urging its members to object to the Hindu prayer, saying Zed would be seeking the invocation of a non-monotheistic god.

Once the protesters were ushered out of the chamber, Zed began the prayer without disruption:

"Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of heaven," he said.

As the Senate prepared to resume debate on President Bush's Iraq war policy, Zed concluded his prayer with "peace, peace, peace be unto all".

A number of religious figures from various faiths have been invited to say the opening prayer at the start of each day's Senate session, but most of the time it is delivered by a Christian chaplain.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and a Mormon, had invited Zed, who was born in India, to speak to the chamber. He defended the decision. "I think it speaks well of our country that someone representing the faith of about a billion people comes here and can speak, in communication with our Heavenly Father, regarding peace," he said.

Reid offered a response to the protesters. "If people have any misunderstanding about Indians and Hindus, all they have to do is think of Gandhi. Here is a man who has changed the world, a man who believed in peace," he said.

Reid says he keeps an ivory statue of Gandhi in his Senate office. He says it was a gift from Indian classmates when he was student at Utah State University.