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A Church Member Called Authorities After Two Muslim Students Attended A Service

The president of Nazareth College in New York said that a church member called Homeland Security to "express concern" about the students who visited the church as a part of a class that required them to attend different religious services.

Posted on December 8, 2016, at 1:30 p.m. ET

A member of a church congregation in New York state "called Homeland Security to express concern" about two Muslim students who attended a religious service there on Sunday, the president of Nazareth College said in a campus-wide email.

Alex Shukoff/Nazareth College

In the email, provided to BuzzFeed News, President Daan Braveman said that two of the school's Muslim students visited a local church in Rochester as part of the Sociology of Religion Course, which required students to attend religious services that are not part of their tradition.

This was the second time the students, both male, had attended services at the Browncroft Community Church. The college did not identify the students to "protect them from retaliation," a spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News.

Braveman said that the students were "very well behaved and appeared to be well received at the church."

"Nevertheless, a church member subsequently called Homeland Security to express concern about Muslim students from Nazareth," Braveman said. "A State Police representative contacted the College to confirm that the two individuals are in fact students. After their student status was confirmed, the police dropped the matter."

A campus spokesperson later said the "New York State Police Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit that reached out to Nazareth College Campus Safety and they work in tandem with the NYS division of Homeland Security."

He said he had met the students and reassured them of the college's support.

The president said he was "very troubled and indeed angered that two of our students were singled out because of their religious beliefs."

"This incident underscores, especially in the context of the larger environment, the importance of our work in promoting interfaith understanding and respect across lines of religious difference," Braveman said.

A spokesperson for the New York State Police confirmed that they were contacted and that they went to the college and found out that the two men were students. The spokesperson refused to answer which agency contacted them or what the nature of the call was.

Pastor Rob Cattalani of Browncroft Community Church told BuzzFeed News that a volunteer security member of his church, who is a law enforcement professional, called Nazareth College to verify if the two Muslim men were students "not because of their skin color or religious background" but because they did not look "college age."

Cattalani said one of the students looked like he was in his 40s and the other in his late 20s. He said the two men "self-identified as college students who were on a fact-finding mission about religion."

"At the discretion of the security person, he felt it was worth a follow up call to the college to make sure these guys were in fact who they said they were," Cattalani said.

Another person at the church, who was not a staff member, called Homeland Security about the two Muslim students, according to Cattalani.

"I assume that this person was a law enforcement professional and this is something they wanted to do of their own volition," Cattalani said. He said he was not sure whether the congregation member called Homeland Security before or after the church's security member called the college to verify if the two men were students.

An officer with the New York State Police paid a "brief visit to the campus" to speak with the Campus Safety director, the college spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News.

"My position is that it's very unfortunate because this wasn't an action taken by any staff member of my church," Cattalani said, referring to the call to Homeland Security. "We have a very open community which is multiracial and multicultural and everyone's welcome here, including the students."

Cattalani said that President Braveman issued the statement about the incident without talking to the church.

"He put out a press release that made some assumptions of the church that might have been less than true," Cattalani said, adding that he felt the church was painted in a "very unfortunate light."

The pastor said he hoped to speak with Braveman on Thursday.

"I don't know what his motivations were, but my hope is that our conversation will result in something constructive," Cattalani said. "I want to be able to offer, which I hoped he would've offered, an actual dialogue with the students."

Responding to several people who admonished the church on its Facebook page for not issuing an apology, Cattalani told BuzzFeed News, "I’m very sorry that this happened. I’m very sorry about the way the students feel."

Facebook: Browncroft

"I will certainly say that to their face," he said. "It's not who we are. We are a very inclusive organization."

The US Department of Homeland Security didn't immediately answer a request for comment and to confirm the call.


This story was updated to reflect that state homeland security officials were involved in the incident. Earlier college officials said they were unsure if the officials were state or federal officials.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.