Guess that religion!

It's time to play "Guess that religion!" For today's entry, let's look at this Los Angeles Times blog post about suspicious activity on an Alaska Airlines jet from Mexico City to Los Angeles:

Police and FBI agents responded Sunday to reports of three men acting suspiciously on an Alaska Airlines flight inbound to Los Angeles but determined that the trio had been praying and posed no threat. ...

The men, described as Mexican nationals, were taken off the plane and interviewed and the objects were determined to be leather artifacts used for an orthodox prayer ritual, [FBI spokeswoman Laura] Eimiller said.

The story has various other paragraphs but none manage to mention what religion the men adhered to. I mean, you can sort of figure out that the "orthodox" reference is a reference to Orthodox Judaism, but these are not things that should require guesswork. In journalism, information works better than fog.

There are many other questions about this story. On my flight to Israel, I spoke with the flight attendant who noted the lack of men praying on the flight. We were flying on the Sabbath so there were no Orthodox Jews on the large flight. She told me that on a typical flight, many men will be gathered in various parts of the aircraft doing their prayers. She said it was sometimes a challenge to navigate around them.

My perspective is clearly skewed right now, as I'm in a country with a large number of Orthodox Jews. But it seems like it's somewhat odd that the flight attendants wouldn't recognize Orthodox Jews on a flight. It also seems odd -- in light of previous similar stories -- that the men wouldn't have explained what they were doing better.

The CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi did a great job of advancing the story and answering some of these questions:

Alaska Airlines has apologized for a weekend incident in which three Orthodox Jewish businessmen triggered security concerns by conducting a prayer ritual on board a flight to Los Angeles.

The men began praying out loud in Hebrew shortly after takeoff on Flight 241 from Mexico City. Flight attendants alerted the flight deck, which then called the tower and alerted law enforcement. When the plane arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, it was met by the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and airport police.

But the story goes on to explain precisely why, according to the flight attendants, the behavior seemed so suspicious: the men retrieved their teflillin (black leather straps wrapped around the arm and forehead) after attendants requested everyone stay seated with seat belts, the men disregarded repeated requests to sit down, the men prayed aloud together in an unfamiliar language, the men didn't explain their actions very well when asked, and later two of the three men visited the lavatories together while another waited in the aisle and looked around the cabin toward the flight deck door.

The story ends with a nice, balanced discussion of mutual responsibility in situations such as this. Various Jews are quoted about how they hope airlines will become more aware of Orthodox Jewish prayer rituals but also that those engaged in such rituals will work with airline security.

The story explains the rituals and the various perspective without demonizing anyone or inflaming the issue. A nice, helpful read.

Image via Wikimedia.

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