Imams stage airport ‘pray-in’ to protest their barring from US Airways flight last week

WASHINGTON (AP) – Imams, ministers and a rabbi staged a “pray-in” demonstration Monday at Reagan Washington National Airport and demanded an apology from US Airways for barring six Muslims from a Minneapolis to Phoenix flight last week.

The religious leaders called for an end to racial profiling, saying it was unacceptable in America.

“These things are troubling to us,” said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. “Driving while black, flying while Muslim, traveling with a Torah or getting with Jesus.”

Imam Omar Shahin, one of the six imams detained last Monday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said they hadn’t done anything suspicious.

The imams, who were returning from a religious conference, had prayed on their prayer rugs in the airport before the flight. After they boarded the flight, a passenger, who was alarmed by their activity, passed a note to a flight attendant. The men were taken off the airplane, handcuffed and questioned.

“It was the worst moment in my life,” Shahin said.

US Airways Group Inc. spokeswoman Andrea Rader said prayer was never the issue.

“Apparently, as they were boarding, one passenger overheard them saying what they thought were anti-U.S. statements,” Rader said.

She also said the men got up and moved around the airplane, forcing the flight crew to consult with the airline about whether they might pose a security risk. Local law enforcement and the FBI thought they did, she said.

“We’re sorry the imams had a difficult time, but we do think the crews have to make these calls and we think they made the right one,” she said. US Airways plans to meet with the imams this week, Rader said.

On Monday, Shahin and a handful of other Muslims bowed down on rugs and prayed in Terminal A near the US Airways ticket counter. Jewish and Christian clergy also said prayers.

After the prayer session, Shahin and other religious leaders boarded a US Airways flight to demonstrate their determination to continue praying and flying.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP national office, called on Congress to pass legislation that would end racial profiling. The bill is necessary because airlines are unclear how to deal with racial and ethnic profiling, he said.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, four airlines accused of breaking federal anti-discrimination laws settled with the government. Transportation Department investigations found the airlines had unlawfully removed passengers because of their perceived ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Though the air carriers _ American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines _ admitted no wrongdoing, they agreed to carry out civil rights training for their employees.

The Homeland Security Department’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said last week that it was investigating the US Airways incident.