A Muslim cleric on Tuesday called for a boycott of US Airways, and an Islamic advocacy group called for an investigation, after the cleric and five other imams were removed in handcuffs from one of the carrier's flights shortly after three performed their evening prayer ritual.
Omar Shahin's call followed the airline's refusal to sell the six men tickets on another flight after they were forced off the Phoenix-bound Flight 300 Monday evening, an incident the Council on American Islamic Relations said may be linked to a persistent "fear and prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
US Airways flight crews should take "sensitivity training" and learn the difference between Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists, said Bushra Khan, a spokeswoman for CAIR's chapter in Phoenix where the group held a press conference Tuesday.
"The fact that this very small group (terrorists) has hijacked our religion is not going to deter us from speaking out," Khan said, in a reference to the Sept. 11, hijackers and other terrorists. "Prayer is not a suspicious or criminal activity."
The group had been in Minneapolis for the North American Imams Federation conference and were returning home. At the airport terminal, three of them performed their normal evening prayers and boarded the flight individually, except for one of the clerics who is blind and needed a guide, Shahin said.
"Is to practice your faith and pray a crime in America? This is a real problem," Shahin said at an impromptu news conference Tuesday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
"How would you guys feel if six pastors or rabbis were removed from a Saudi or Egyptian Arabic airplane?" said Ahmad Shqeirat, another of the ejected imams.
CAIR said it is calling on authorities to investigate "whether proper procedures were followed by security personnel and members of the US Airways flight crew."
"We are concerned that crew members, passengers and security personnel may have succumbed to fear and prejudice based on stereotyping of Muslims and Islam," said Nihad Awad, the Washington-based group's executive director in a statement.
U.S. Airways officials have said that passengers raised concerns about the imams through a note passed to a flight attendant.
Police were called after the captain and airport security workers asked the men to leave the plane and they refused, said airline spokeswoman Andrea Rader. She said the rest of the flight's 141 passengers and five crew members were re-screened for boarding and the plane departed about three hours after the men were removed.
Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said some witnesses said some of the imams made anti-American comments about the war in Iraq before boarding the flight, and that some of the men asked for seat belt extensions even though a flight attendant thought they did not need them.
"There were a number of things that gave the flight crew pause," Hogan said. It was not immediately possible to verify whether the passengers who reported suspicious activity witnessed it themselves.
Marwan Sadeddin, another of the imams, said they did nothing wrong or suspicious.
"Just tell me one activity or one deed that we did that looks weird," Sadeddin said. "Nothing unusual whatsoever. When we got to the plane, we took our seats normally. We sit down."
Shahin, in pressing Muslims and non-Muslims to boycott of the airline if it does not change its ways, said when the men returned to the airport Tuesday morning to try to use their tickets or buy new ones, the carrier refused and said they had been refunded their fare and would not be allowed to purchase other tickets on the flight.
"They know what they have to do, they have to be fair and just with everybody," he said.
Airline spokesman Morgan Durrant said afterward that he was not aware of the ticketing decision and could not comment.
But US Airways Group Inc., said it was interviewing crew members and ground workers to find out what happened.
"We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case and can provide answers for the employees and customers involved in this incident," the airline said in a statement.
"We are always concerned when passengers are inconvenienced and especially concerned when a situation occurs that causes customers to feel their dignity was compromised. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind."
The men eventually booked a flight on Northwest Airlines to Phoenix, where five of the six clerics live. The other imam is based in Bakersfield, California.
CAIR officials said the convention which the men attended drew about 150 imams from all over the country, and that those attending included Democratic U.S. Rep,-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.
Associated Press Writer Jeff Baenen contributed to this story.
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