Muslim leaders expressed outrage on Tuesday after six imams were removed from a commercial airline flight in Minnesota for what they said was nothing more than trying to say evening prayers.
"They were treated like terrorists ... humiliated," said Abu Hannoud, civil rights director for the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who said the men were taken off the US Airways flight in handcuffs.
He said the men were still trying to find a flight back to Phoenix where most are affiliated with a major mosque after the carrier refused them passage following the incident on Monday evening.
"We are concerned that crew members, passengers and security personnel may have succumbed to fear and prejudice based on stereotyping of Muslims and Islam," added Nihad Awad, executive director of the council, in a statement from the group's Washington headquarters.
"We call on relevant authorities to investigate whether proper procedures were followed by security personnel and members of the US Airways flight crew," he said.
The group said the men told it they were accused of "suspicious activity," which they believed was only their attempt to pray.
Hannoud said in an interview that the men had been attending a three-day meeting of the North American Imams Federation in the Minneapolis area "discussing how to build bridges" between Muslims and American society, and that the FBI and local police had been informed in advance about the meeting.
"They were rewarded by being treated like terrorists," he said. "Their humiliation is really a humiliation for the entire Muslim community," he added, and further proof that Islam phobia is a growing problem in the United States.
Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, said the airline asked airport police to remove the six men from the Minneapolis to Phoenix flight because their actions were "arousing some concerns" among both passengers and crew.
He said the men had been praying at the gate area but he did not know if they tried to pray once at their seats inside the plane.
He also said some witnesses reported the men were making anti-American statements involving the Iraq war, asked to change seats once inside the cabin, that one requested an extender to make his seat belt larger even though he did not appear to need it and that in general "there was some peculiar behavior."
US Airways issued a statement saying it was "diligently conducting our own investigation ... We are debriefing crew members and ground personnel as well as working with law enforcement."
The carrier said it is "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 and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case."
Hogan said the men were questioned by local police, the FBI and federal security officials and released. Under normal procedures, he said, people taken off a flight under those circumstances would have been handcuffed, though he did not know if they were in this case.