GREENSBORO, N.C. -- "Always before," said Pushpinder Kaur, 17, "I felt like I wanted to be a Christian, a regular American . . . . Now I'm really proud to be a Sikh."

The young Durham woman was one of 69 Sikh young people from nine states and two foreign countries attending a youth camp near here to learn more about their religion, its history and culture.

Only a week earlier, in contrast to the peaceful rhythm of life at the camp, the houses, shops and religious places of the estimated 3,000 Sikhs in the Indian city of Hisar were burned and looted. Perpetrators were retaliating against the killing of 38 people gunned down on a lonely Indian road, purportedly by Sikh extremists. The cycle of violence ended only when Indian Army troops intervened.

There is only one thing that worries Sikhs in America more than the situation in India -- the fear that Christianity on the one hand or secularism on the other will lure their youth into forsaking their religious traditions.

That is one rationale behind the Sikh youth camp, says Harmohindar Singh of Greensboro, camp director and an architectural engineering professor at North Carolina A&T State University.

Camps have been a Sikh tradition since at least the 19th century. This summer, the estimated 250,000 Sikhs in the United States will hold camps in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California.

"The peer pressure, especially in this country, is enormous because the Sikh children in any city are very, very few -- maybe one in the whole city," Harmohindar Singh said. "Therefore, it is very important to reinforce that they can be distinct as well as be proud Americans."

"For example, a {male} Sikh is supposed to wear a turban without cutting his hair. Due to peer pressure, many Sikhs don't keep that. When youths come here they see that they may be alone in one city but that there are many of them in this country. We have seen some of the kids who were cutting their hair -- after coming here, they've started growing it back."

Among Sikhs, unshorn hair neatly kept in a turban and a full beard are signs of respect for "the natural order of God." The practice is one of several external Sikh symbols. Sikhs also wear iron or steel bracelets to bind them to God and remind them of their duty. Every male Sikh takes the name Singh, every female, the name Kaur. In the United States, many use them as their last names.

Sikhism began in India in the 15th century with Nanak, a Hindu and the first Sikh guru. He studied under Muslims and Hindus and he left followers dissenting from both faiths when he died. The nine gurus who succeeded him shaped Nanak's teaching into a separate group of believers with its own monotheistic religion, language, literature and traditions.

Historically, Sikhs in India have been known as good farmers, committed soldiers and religious worshipers who practiced equality in a society where the caste system prevented rich and poor from eating and socializing with each other.

The Sikh youth camp steeps youngsters in this heritage and teaches them to be proud of who they are.

"I've learned that Sikhs are braver than I thought," said Vicram Singh, 10, who lives in Virginia Beach. "Fear none, frighten none, always worship the mighty one," he said, quoting Sikh scripture.

Kavita Mandan, 9, of Minneapolis, nodded, bouncing her long brown hair in agreement. "When I've been home, I didn't know anything," she said.

Other campers chimed in with similar stories of learning to speak Punjabi, Sikhs' spoken language; to write Gurmukhi, Sikhs' written language; to understand Sikh scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, and to participate in keertan, Sikhs' musical worship tradition. Keertan includes playing mournful and joyful rhythms on leather drums and the harmonium and singing melodious, chanted prayers and praises.

Two teen-agers said their camp experience will make it easier to live as Sikhs in the outside world.

"The main thing here is the support," said Seema Kaur, 13, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. "It's tough, especially in a place where you're a minority. What you gain from here is not something you lose when you leave the camp. Sikhism is a way of life."