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Muslim Clergy Struggle With 'Ignorance' Of Airlines, Public

Left to right they are: Safaa Zarzour, Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America, Jibril Hough, spokesman for

At least three Muslim clergymen were denied access to flights bound for Charlotte over the weekend. They were trying to attend the annual meeting of the North American Imams Federation. The airlines are saying little about why the men were not allowed to fly. Imam Al-Amin Abdul Latif spoke to WFAE by cell phone while driving home to New York from Charlotte. He had to drive because Friday morning at the La Guardia airport, American Airlines refused to let him on the plane. "I believe it had everything to do with the climate in which we are living in today with the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim (feeling)," said Latif. He came to Charlotte for a conference of Muslim clergy. The main topic was how to address Islamophobia. American Airlines would not explain the decision to bar Latif, but only said in a statement there was "no ill intent on the part of any of (its) employees." But Latif and other Muslim imams who attended the Charlotte conference feel like discrimination against them is growing. The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden may have added to the scrutiny for about 200 imams travelling to Charlotte last weekend. Imam Eltayeb Abuelyaman leads prayers and ministers to a congregation in Charlotte. "I'm between the crossfire of two," says Abuelyaman. "On the one hand Al Qaeda thinks I am American and they would come after me anytime they could. On the other hand, I'm paying for September 11th because I'm a Muslim." Abuelyaman says his traditional tight white cap and flowing robes seem to attract discrimination. That's how two other imams attending the Charlotte conference were dressed at the Memphis airport. They were forced to wait six hours for another plane when a pilot refused to fly with them on board, even though they had been cleared by the Transportation Security Administration. Delta Airlines apologized for the inconvenience in a statement and called the incident "extremely rare," but refused to answer questions about the pilot's actions. "What's happening here is an issue of lack of education and ignorance," says Safaa Zarzour, Secretary General of the nonprofit Islamic Society of North America. Federal regulation allows an airline to refuse to transport an individual that it decides is unsafe. The plane's captain has ultimate authority. But the decision cannot be made solely on the basis of person's race, color, national origin, religion, ethnicity, or sex. "If a pilot is going to have discretion to remove anyone he feels uncomfortable with, then I think the pilot and the airline, as well as our federal government, have the responsibility to educate that pilot," says Zarzour. "Educate him that an Imam is no different than a Catholic priest. In the case of the imams who were refused service over the weekend, the law requies the airline to establish that the pilot's decision was not based on an "unreasonable or irrationally-formed" belief.