Traverse City Record-Eagle

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November 16, 2012

Prayer banned from vet service

Islamic Call to Prayer portion of program outlawed

TRAVERSE CITY — The word seemingly came out of the blue:

Choral director Jeffrey Cobb told his singers and orchestra — roughly 180 local adults and teens drawn from college, a high school, and churches — that a pastor barred an Islamic prayer from the piece they planned to sing.

Their concert was to be performed the next day, on Veterans Day, at First Congregational Church in Traverse City for the annual Mel Larimer Concert Series.

Pastor David Walls and other church officials wanted nothing to do with the Islamic Call to Prayers portion of the performance. They did not want to offend their congregation and military veterans they planned to honor that day, church leaders said.

A shock wave rippled through the choir during their tune-up at the church, and no one took the jolt harder than Alya Nadji, 16, a Muslim and member of the Traverse City West High School Chorale.

Alya tried to keep singing, but couldn't compose herself. She ran to the bathroom sobbing. She sent a text message to her parents and asked them what she should do. They decided she should leave the rehearsal.

"I felt like I wasn't being treated equal ... I felt that I was unwelcome and that I didn't belong any place near there," said Alya, a junior, who wears a head scarf in the Islamic tradition.

Different faiths, drawn to peace

The story began in early October when Cobb and Sally Lewis, First Congregational's music minister, selected the piece and invited an Islamic prayer leader from Grand Rapids to recite the Call to Prayers.

The performance of "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" is sung atop a video that depicts graphic war scenes and ends with different faiths drawn together in peace.

Church leaders made the decision to censor the prayer three weeks ago. Cobb opposed the move and said he previously hinted to the choir the prayer might be cut. He delayed the final announcement to stem controversy and because he held out hope the church would relent, or at least agree to offer an explanation to the audience, he said.

Church officials stood firm. That Sunday, with hundreds in the audience, the video showed Muslims bowing to Allah, but with no accompanying prayer, only silence.

The church's decision to ban the prayer sparked protest by choir and community members. Northwestern Michigan College officials held an impromptu meeting hours before Sunday's concert and said the college would withdraw as an official supporter of the Larimer event.

College officials chastised Cobb for failing to inform them sooner so they could have tried to avert the problem, NMC Vice President Marguerite Cotto said.

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