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.
'Too hard to handle'
Walls, First Congregational's senior minister, said he and other church leaders rejected the prayer because they did not want to offend audience members.
"We were concerned that there was potential that some of our active military personnel, military families with sons or daughters in Iraq, who have even lost their lives there, would find it much too hard to handle," he said.
"A prayer in Arabic, addressed to Allah, with references to Muhammad for an event that was intended to honor veterans," Walls said.
Doug Bishop, vice president of the church council and an NMC board member, agreed with Walls and does not consider the decision a form of intolerance.
"From a Christian viewpoint, a Christian's acceptance of other people's rights have nothing to do with requiring their views to be espoused from your pulpit," he said.
Bishop, a Vietnam war veteran, said he would have been offended at having to observe the prayer.
"Given the realities of what's going on in the world and then to have it start out with a Muslim Call to Prayer," he said. "We are clearly a Christian church and we don't apologize for that. We have the right to control our content."
Kamran Memon, president of the Chicago-based Muslims for Safe America, countered that many Muslim Americans are veterans, too. An estimated 20,000 Muslim Americans serve in the U.S. military, he said.
"American soldiers have fought and died side-by-side with Afghan and Iraqi troops fighting against a common enemy," he said.
Memon said he understands the tensions, owing to some Muslim American extremists' attempted attacks on American soil.
"This situation could prompt the church leaders and others to organize a forum, not for a warm and fuzzy discussion, but for a really serious discussion. And that's what our group can help with," Memon said.
Walls said the Islamic mosque leader in Grand Rapids understood First Congregational's decision. Walls wonders why others raised concerns.
But NMC choir member Heather Shaw, a book editor, viewed the censorship as "bigoted and intolerant." She and choir member Duncan Moran, an English teacher, spread the word and contacted composer Karl Jenkins, who wrote the "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace."
Jenkins said the piece prompted similar reactions elsewhere, but only rarely, despite 2,000 performances.
As for the Nov. 11 event, Alya, the West student, took her place on stage.
"The whole piece is dedicated to world peace, and that's exactly what I wanted to portray, despite my being disrespected," she said.