‘Pray-in’ protesters decry imams’ removal from flight

Times Staff Writer

Protesting the removal of six imams from a US Airways flight last week, a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders staged a “pray-in” Monday near the airline’s ticket counter at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The six clerics, who had attended a national Islamic scholars’ conference in Minnesota, were detained at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Protesters said the Nov. 20 incident smacked of racial profiling, citing the fact that three of the men had said evening prayers in the terminal’s departure area before boarding.


“We are in a place in our society where xenophobia seems to win out,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, who was among about 20 protesters Monday.

“The last time I checked, public prayer was still protected by the U.S. Constitution,” said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The imams were removed from the Phoenix-bound flight after a passenger gave a flight attendant a note expressing concern about “suspicious activity,” according to a police report. The report included a flight attendant’s notation that the men had asked for seat-belt extensions though “they were not overweight.”

The plane was kept on the ground for an hour before the men were removed and handcuffed. Federal agents questioned the clerics for more than five hours.

Omar Shahin, president of the North American Imams Federation, was headed to his home in Phoenix when he was detained. The airline “humiliated us in a very disrespectful way,” Shahin said after his release.

The flight crew made the decision to remove the men, said US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader. “They believed the men posed a threat because of their behavior,” which included getting up and moving about the aircraft, she said.


After Monday’s pray-in, Shahin, Bray, Hagler and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, took a US Airways flight to Philadelphia.

Protester Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said last week’s incident should encourage Congress to pass legislation to end racial profiling.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation into the incident.