Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Sunday greeted hundreds of Sikhs as an "integral part of the economy and culture" of Los Angeles and representative of the diversity for which the city is famous.
"What makes L.A. so special is that we come here from every corner of the Earth to participate in the American dream," the mayor said during a prayer service at the Los Angeles Convention Center, part of a celebration for Baisakhi Day, the India-based religion's annual holiday of renewal and rebirth.
"We're here to honor your faith," Villaraigosa told the worshipers, "but also to honor this great country of ours" where all faiths can be practiced freely.
Organizers said that as many as 15,000 Sikhs from throughout Southern California attended the daylong event, which included music, free food and a colorful parade through downtown.
Other dignitaries included Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who promised at a news conference to work toward ending violence against all religions, including Sikhism, whose practitioners have often been mistaken for Muslims in the wake of Sept. 11.
"In the post-9/11 environment, the turban has gotten a lot of negative associations because of the images we've seen," said Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa, a spokeswoman for Sikh Dharma International, one of the event's sponsors.
"We are here to spread the message that the religion is founded on equality of all people and freedom of religion," she said. "The Sikh turban, from a values perspective, is synonymous with the core Bill of Rights."
Constituting the world's fifth-largest religion with about 23 million practitioners worldwide, she said, Sikhs believe in serving humanity through hard work and sharing fruits of their labor.
Baisakhi Day, which historically marks the year's first harvest, commemorates a principal guru's directive in 1699 that Sikhs "become protectors of the human spirit."