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Wellesley schools chief apologizes for students' role in Muslim prayer service

Posted by Leslie Anderson  September 16, 2010 05:33 PM

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

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

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

Wellesley School Superintendent Bella Wong said 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 prayer 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.’’

No one at the mosque asked the Wellesley students to participate in the prayers, said Bilal Kaleem, president of the Muslim American Society of Boston, which manages and runs the cultural center.

‘‘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 Kaleem. ‘‘It’s more an issue with the school.’’

He said the cultural center holds numerous 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 segments on Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. As part of the class, students also visit a synagogue, 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 was disturbed by the trip, and passed the video off to his group because it was the main voice against the mosque, New England’s largest, when it opened in 2009.

Hale said Wellesley officials should have prevented students from participating in the prayer ritual.

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

The 10-minute-long video, which weaves the words of a narrator and video of activities at the center, says that during the Wellesley 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 Watertown-based nonprofit education curriculum company, Primary Source, for encouraging public school visits to mosques. Reached today, its executive director Julia de la Torre said her company did not plan the Wellesley field trip.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com. Katrina Ballard can be reached at kballard@globe.com.

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