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Praying by pupils at mosque decried

Wellesley chief calls it a mistake; group releases field trip footage

By Erica Noonan and Katrina Ballard
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / September 17, 2010

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WELLESLEY — Wellesley’s school superintendent apologized yesterday for allowing middle school pupils to participate in a prayer service during a field trip to a Roxbury mosque last spring.

The apology to parents was made after a group that has been critical of Islamic Society of Boston Community Center — New England’s largest mosque and Muslim cultural center — released a 10-minute video featuring footage of Wellesley pupils bowing their heads during a prayer service.

The group, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, received the footage from a mother of one of the pupils, its director, Dennis Hale, said yesterday. The woman, whom they would not identify, went on the May 27 trip as a chaperone for her son’s sixth-grade class, he said.

Superintendent Bella Wong said yesterday that allowing the children to participate in the prayer service was a mistake, and apologized to parents in a letter.

Five middle schoolers participated in the Muslim midday prayer at the mosque, she said. Some can be seen in the video imitating some of the movements.

“It was not the intent for students to be able to participate in any of the religious practices,’’ Wong said. “The fact that any students were allowed to do so in this case was an error.’’

A community center spokesman said no one from the organization asked the pupils to participate in the prayers.

“Certainly in our tours we do not invite kids to take part, but if someone wants to come pray and take part, we shouldn’t prevent them,’’ said Bilal Kaleem, president of the Muslim American Society of Boston, which manages and runs the cultural center. “It’s more an issue with the school.’’

Kaleem said that the cultural center offers tours and that Wellesley educators had set up the field trip.

Wong said the mosque visit took place as part of the sixth-grade social studies course, “Enduring Beliefs in the World Today,’’ which includes lessons on Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. As part of the class, pupils also visit a synagogue, attend a gospel musical performance, and meet with Hindu religious representatives, she said.

“I extend my sincere apologies for the error that occurred and regret the offense it may have caused,’’ Wong said in the letter to parents.

In the future, Wong wrote, teachers will provide “more clear guidance to students to better define what is allowed to fulfill the purpose of observation.’’

Hale said the Wellesley mother disturbed by the trip gave the video to his group because it was the main voice against the mosque when it opened in 2009.

Hale said that he and his co-directors, Dr. Charles Jacobs, a Jewish activist, and Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Mansour, an Egyptian refugee, oppose the mosque because of its affiliation with the Muslim American Society.

Hale said Wellesley officials should have prevented students from participating in prayers.

“If a Catholic priest took school kids to a church and said, ‘Let’s teach them about Catholicism,’ and the kids kneeled before the altar, took wine, and the Host, the furor would be visible from outer space,’’ he said.

But Kate Badertscher, a Wellesley parent whose son attended the field trip, had a different perspective.

“Speaking as a parent, I thought it was a terrific field trip for him to go on,’’ Badertscher, a member of the Wellesley Middle School Parent Teacher Organization, said when contacted by the Globe.

“So much of what kids read and hear about Islam today doesn’t give them the full picture. I think the school was trying to broaden horizons, and that’s a good thing.’’

The 10-minute video, which weaves the words of a narrator and video of activities at the center, says that during the field trip, girls and women were instructed to stay at the back of the room during the prayer service — as per Muslim custom — and the boys were allowed to stand side by side with mosque members during prayers.

The children, visible from the back on film, are not identified.

Hale’s video also criticized a nonprofit education curriculum company, Primary Source, for encouraging public school visits to mosques. Reached yesterday, the executive director of the Watertown-based business, Julia de la Torre, said her company did not plan the Wellesley field trip.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said her organization will investigate what happened with the Wellesley schoolchildren.

“If, as the video produced by this organization purports to show, public school children were indeed asked to take part in or observe a prayer service at a mosque, it would be deeply problematic, as would any invitation to public school children to participate in a prayer service at any church, temple, or other religious house of worship,’’ Rose said in a statement last night.

Noting that the field trip took place this past spring, Kaleem asserted that Americans for Peace and Tolerance was sensationalizing the incident because of the current controversy in New York City over locating a Muslim community center near ground zero of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“They make it their business to go after mosques,’’ Kaleem said. “They’ve never come to the center, never agreed to meet and talk about their concern.’’

A leader of another local Islamic group, the Wayland-based Islamic Society of Boston, said his mosque frequently offers tours and allows visitors to attend prayer services.

But to truly pray as a Muslim, a supplicant needs to undergo ritual ablutions, something few non-Muslim visitors ever do, said Dr. Abdul Cader Asmal, a board member and former president of the Wayland mosque, which is independent from the Roxbury center visited by the Wellesley students.

“It is so unfortunate,’’ Asmal said of the controversy, “when we have an opportunity to help encourage good relations and people with an agenda wreck the understanding we are trying to create.’’

Globe correspondent Sarah Thomas contributed to this report. Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com. Katrina Ballard can be reached at kballard@globe.com