- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

TOWSON, Md. — The Baltimore County Board of Education endorsed a subcommittee recommendation last night not to close schools on two Islamic holidays, as proposed by a Muslim group.

The board also modified other recommendations by the Ad Hoc Committee on the School Calendar after several members raised objections. The recommendations would have given special treatment to the Muslim holy days, including noting them on the school calendar and taking class time to teach their significance.

School board member John A. Hayden III said that hundreds of religious sects are represented in county classrooms and that teaching all religions would be impractical.

“It is a duty that rests with parents and religious leaders,” he said.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston will consider the recommendations for his proposed 2007-08 school calendar, on which the school board will vote in June or July.

Committee members said they rejected the proposed closures because countywide attendance does not decrease enough on Muslim holidays to justify such a change.

Although the committee did not recommend closing schools on those days, members said they were aware that students felt “torn between their academic and religious obligations” and recommended they take a maximum two excused absences for religious observance.

Still, Muslims in the county point out that schools are closed on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year celebration, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

The group wanted county schools closed for Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. In the upcoming school year, Eid al-Fitr falls on Oct. 24 and Eid al-Adha on Dec. 31.

Fewer than 100 people attended the general meeting last night. One who did attend was Bash Pharoan, president of the county’s chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council.

“This is Islamaphobia,” Mr. Pharoan said. “It is really fear of Islam, fear of Arabs.”

He also said the national uproar about a deal to have a United Arab Emirates company operate terminals at six U.S. ports reflects pervasive anti-Arab sentiment.

“I am not Islam-a-phobic,” Luis E. Borunda, school board member and chairman of the committee, told Mr. Pharoan before the meeting. “This is a very important issue to a very important community, a growing community.”

Mr. Pharoan also circulated a letter urging Muslims to attend the meeting.

However, he was joined by only a few people, including fellow Muslim council board member Muhammad Jameel.

Mr. Jameel said Muslim parents stayed home because they “feel intimidated” by surveillance, police harassment and the Bush administration’s eavesdropping on foreign phone calls.

Jewish leaders say Mr. Pharoan is attempting to politicize the school calendar and create friction between the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Muslims in Dearborn, Mich., and in four New Jersey jurisdictions have succeeded in getting public schools closed for Islamic holy days.

Baltimore County had about 70,000 Jewish residents in 1999, according to a study cited by the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Though estimates of Jewish and Muslim populations vary, most surveys show about twice as many Jews as Muslims in the Baltimore area and the D.C. suburbs.

However, the numbers nationally are much closer. A 2000 study by the American Religion Data Archive estimated that the U.S. had 5.7 million Jews and 4.6 million Muslims.

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