Group wants apology from North Dakota House Republicans for canceling prayer from Muslim

The largest Muslim civil liberties group in the U.S. wants North Dakota House Republicans to apologize for canceling a Muslim's opening floor session prayer on Ash Wednesday and having a Christian deliver the invocation instead.

Dr. Nadim Koleilat, a surgeon in Bismarck and president of the city's Muslim Community Center, went across the hall and delivered the invocation to the state Senate, without objection from the lawmakers in that chamber.

Republicans have two-thirds control in both the North Dakota House and Senate.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Friday that Koleilat and other Muslims in the state deserve an apology from lawmakers for what he called "religious bigotry and exclusion."

Hussein, a former resident of North Dakota, said the state is becoming more diversified with its strong economy spurred by the oil boom in western North Dakota. Hussein, a North Dakota State University graduate, said it's ironic that the first mosque built in North America was constructed in the late 1920s to serve Lebanese Muslims near Ross, in western North Dakota. Earlier mosques in America existed, but in converted buildings, researchers say.

The incident Wednesday could be a learning experience for lawmakers, Hussein said.

"Sometimes mistakes help everyone move forward," he said.

Rep. Al Carlson, the House majority leader, said some lawmakers believed it was "probably more appropriate to have a Christian" lead the prayer on the day that marks the beginning of the Easter season. Carlson, a Fargo Republican, said Koleilat has been invited back to give an invocation next week.

Koleilat was seeing patients on Friday and did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Rep. Dwight Kiefert said he was among the most vocal regarding not having a Christian deliver the prayer on Ash Wednesday.

"I just posed the question on why a Christian wasn't giving the prayer on that holy day," said the Valley City Republican who represents District 24. A posting on the District 24 Republicans' Facebook page earlier this week called Koleilat's planned prayer prior to the House floor session on Ash Wednesday "political correctness at its worst."

Kiefert said the posting and others — done by party volunteers — have been pulled and an apology was put in place Friday.

"I'm being called a bigot and everything else," Kiefert said. "I will apologize myself if that's what it takes."

The Rev. Rich Wyatt of Living Hope Church of the Nazarene in Bismarck was scheduled to deliver the Senate prayer on Ash Wednesday, while Koleilat was slated to give the House invocation. The two men switched chambers after hearing about grumblings on the House side.

Wyatt and two other area pastors are in charge of scheduling prayers to open floor debates. Wyatt said the schedule on Wednesday had been made weeks in advance. He said he did not realize at the time that Koleilat had been scheduled to give the invocation on that day.

"Dr. Koleilat did a respectful and phenomenal job," Wyatt said. "But there could have been a little more consideration and it could have been handled way better on everybody's part."