HARTFORD, Conn. – The Hartford City Council's decision to replace a scheduled Islamic prayer with an interfaith moment of silence before its meeting sends the wrong message to Connecticut's Islamic community, Muslim leaders said.
Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the canceling of Monday's Muslim prayer just days after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks unfairly singles out state residents who practice Islam. Dhaouadi, along with about 50 other Muslim leaders and supporters, held an Islamic prayer session outside of City Hall on Monday in protest of the council's decision.
"We are not asking for special treatment," he said. "We are just asking for equal treatment, just like everyone else."
City Council president rJo Winch said she decided to cancel the scheduled prayer in favor of a moment of silence before the council's meetings this month after receiving negative e-mails and phone calls.
Winch and fellow council member Luis Cotto denounced the negative comments, which they said were filled with harsh and sometimes bigoted language, during a news conference last week.
Dhaouadi said he believes the majority of the outcry came from misinformed people who believed the council had never held prayers before its meetings and that only Muslim prayers were going to be allowed.
But both Winch and Dhaouadi said past council meetings have begun with prayers led by a rotation of religious leaders, including Muslims.
Dhaouadi said earlier Monday that he was disappointed when Winch informed him of the prayer cancellation on Friday, which was the end of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.
"Why reward ignorance?" he said. "We understand, of course, that politicians are always going to try and seek the middle ground, but in this incident, we think this is a case of caving in to bigots and an immoral position."
Winch, a Democrat, said the backlash made her rethink the council's approach.
"We represent everyone in the city of Hartford," she said earlier Monday. "So in an effort to not isolate or mistreat anyone, my decision was made to hold a moment of silence because that way everyone can participate and nobody is infringed upon."
She said the plan is to return to the prayer rotation in October and reschedule the Muslim prayer. Discussions may be held on whether the moment of silence should be kept permanently, she said.
Cotto, of the Working Families Party, said not everyone on the council agrees with the decision. He said he originally proposed that a Muslim religious leader deliver the two prayer sessions in September as a sign of solidarity between the city of Hartford and its Muslim community.
"I respectfully disagree with my council president and I think this is all unfortunate," he said before Monday's prayer session. "This has never been about inclusivity because we've never excluded anyone but I think we should have taken the opportunity to make a statement against this anti-Muslim sentiment that has been growing."
Dhaouadi said he hopes the council reschedules the prayer.
"We just want to send a message that, like everyone else, Muslims in America were affected by 9/11," he said. "We reject the notion that we should be penalized for that."