NEW YORK - Drawing a distinction between Islam’s values of peace and the actions of two shooters identified as Muslims who killed 14 people and wounded 21 at a social centre in San Bernardino, California, Friday prayers leaders urged congregants to step up their good works and community engagement.

The call was made in forceful sermons delivered by imams in mosques across the United States as Muslims are living through an intensely painful moment and feel growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of Wednesday’s bloodshed, according to media reports. At the Islamic Centre of Southern California in Los Angeles, religious advisor Jihad Turk, a U.S.-born scholar of Palestinian origin, told about 700 people not to retreat from the larger society, as uncomfortable as they may feel following both the San Bernardino and Paris massacres by those professing to be Muslim.

“This is not an option,” Turk, who trains imams and scholars for America through his Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, was quoted as saying by The Los Angeles Times. “We have tremendous opportunities in this country ... to enjoy the benefits of this democracy and this freedom,” he said. “But we have responsibility to contribute to the betterment of this world.”

A similar message was delivered to about 250 people at the Islamic Community Center of Redlands. Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, which represents 78 mosques and Muslim organizations, told congregants to reach out to neighbours and form coalitions with those of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

“Our primary message to Muslim Americans is hold your head high and continue the good works you’re doing and do more of it,” Syed was quoted as saying.

Muslim American service projects in San Bernardino include the Al-Shifa Clinic, a free health center, and the Sahaba Initiative, which assists the hungry and homeless, he said. In his sermon, Shakeel Syed also offered sympathies to the victims and their families and  appreciation for first responders to the scene. He counseled to be “vigilant but not paranoid.” The Friday service was attended by many non-Muslims, he said, including educators from the University of Redlands and U.S. Congressman Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, according to LATimes.

But at a candlelight vigil later Friday at the Islamic Society of Redlands, Syed said a man cursed him and, when Syed offered his hand, the other man spit on it. He said that so far, only two anti-Muslim incidents have been reported to him — an “incoherent rant” against Muslims left on his office voicemail and bullet holes found at a Muslim-owned bookstore in Anaheim.

At the Islamic Center of Riverside, Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of the Greater Los Angeles Area told congregants that the shooters hurt everyone, with victims of various races and faiths — including a Muslim. Anis Kondoker, who attends the mosque, was shot three times in the attack. Speaking from behind the wall that separates men and women at the Riverside center,  according to the Times, Ayloush said Muslims should not feel that the shooters represented Muslims.

“This crime was not committed by a Muslim,” Ayloush said, explaining that the shooters shouldn’t be identified by their Islamic faith. “It’s committed by a criminal.” “No one should have to apologize ... because the only people who are guilty are those who did this.”

But such attacks are often used to begin a crusade against Muslims — attempts that should be exposed and rebuffed, he said. “We need, unfortunately, to be vigilant.” “It’s not the time to be cowardly. It’s not the time to stop coming to masjid,” he said. He mentioned the possible connection between the female shooter, Tashfeen Malik, and Islamic State. He said that whether or not it’s true, it will serve as a reminder of how terrible ISIS is, according to LATimes.

“There hasn’t been a group that’s caused more damage to Islam,” he said. Only a small number of namazis showed up for Friday prayer services at the San Bernardino mosque once frequented by Syed Rizwan Farook, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani ancestry, who was one of the assailants in Wednesday’s attack.

Leaders said the Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah-Amer mosque has been targeted with death threats since Farook’s name was made public. “People feel sad and people feel scared,” Tashneem Biabani, one of a handful of worshipers praying on the women’s side of the mosque, was quoted as saying. A San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy was on hand to keep dozens of journalists from entering the mosque grounds.

As reporters milled about, so did three protesters with a group called Ministry 2 Muslims, which aims to convert Muslims to Christianity, the report said. They toted signs and attempted to hand Bibles translated into Arabic to worshipers entering the mosque. Farook prayed here several times a week, leaders said. Malik, his wife, never did, they said.

Gasser Shehata, who remembers Farook’s excitement about becoming a father six months ago, said he wonders whether Farook’s Pakistani-born wife may have radicalized him. “There is no radicalization happening here at all,” he said of the mosque. “What we learn here is to love others.”

Assistant Imam Mahmoud Nadri was one of several mosque leaders who said he has been interviewed by the FBI. He repeatedly said that Farook’s crime “does not have anything to do with Muslims.” “Only someone who is a psycho would do this,” he said.

The sermon during the prayer service echoed that message. “One very fundamental principal of Islam is the value of the life of a human being,” the speaker said. “If anybody says anything contrary to that, it’s incorrect.” He implored the mosque to come together to “differentiate between what are the teachings of Islam and what are the subversive and deviant concepts being introduced.”