The Aug. 10 terror alert at British airports, enforced after it was discovered that a group of British-born Muslims planned to bomb 10 airliners on their way to the United States, caused chaos for travelers around the country — including me.

In London, hundreds of flights were canceled over four days, disappointing thousands of vacationers and travelers, and costing millions of dollars in lost business.

The alert affected my own travel plans to fly that day from London Stansted to Rome to return to my journalistic work covering the Vatican, as my flight was canceled half an hour before it was due to leave. Some passengers vented their fury at the airline, children were crying at the news of their canceled vacation, but most passengers took the disruption in stride.

“The passengers showed plenty of British stiff upper lip — so, too, did the Americans,” said Father Kevin Ball, senior chaplain at England’s Manchester Airport. “The attitude was simply, ‘They ain’t going to beat us.’”

The prevailing attitude was that such delays were a price worth paying for passenger safety. The check-in halls, packed to overflowing, were somber and hushed.

“People are understanding of the fact that they have to spend longer in security,” said Father Ball. “But a lot of people had a heightened anxiety about flying and a need for reassurance. They wanted to know what they could take on board and what they couldn’t. There were many requests for prayers, especially for those traveling to the United States.”

Father Paschal Ryan, chaplain at Heathrow Airport, said that this was the third such disruption in as many years, so many knew how to deal with the situation.

This incident, however, was particularly distressing for families with small children because of hand baggage limits. Baby milk had to be tasted to ensure it didn’t contain explosive ingredients, and no toys were allowed on board.

The ban on carrying liquids was an inconvenience for some Catholic passengers traveling to the United States, as they were unable to carry vials of holy water. That, too, had to be tasted for clearance. The restrictions were less severe for travelers to other destinations.

At the same time, there were positive lessons to be drawn from the disruption. Chaplains of all faiths were unanimous in saying that the incident helped unite them, creating impetus for closer collaboration.

At some airports, interfaith chaplaincies already exist. At Manchester Airport, a multi-faith liturgy is used that originated from the U.S. branch of the Apostleship of the Sea, while at Heathrow interfaith services existed even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Chaplains were also reassuring passengers that God had not abandoned them in their trial.

“I was asked where was God in all of this,” said Father Ball. “Well, like them, he’s at the check-in and waiting to board the plane,” he replied, stressing that God is always with us, especially in suffering.

Father Ryan, asked by one passenger if religion was the cause of the terrorist threat, replied that there are many elements to the problem and that a person’s faith is only part of the story.

“We’re also talking about an international situation which has a particular history and individuals who relate to that history,” he said. “We must therefore avoid a simplistic analysis.”

Muslim travelers worried that they would bear the brunt of the fallout from the ordeal.

“I met two Muslims who came to the airport and didn’t know what had happened,” said Father Ball. “When I told them the news, they looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we’ll get the blame again then.’”

Father Ball said the temptation must be resisted to “tar all Muslims with the same brush.”

Imam Ahmad Ovaisi, a Muslim chaplain at Heathrow, preaches the need to fight extremism of whatever kind and dismissed the suspected terrorists as criminals who form a “tiny minority” of Muslims.

Ovaisi endorsed the view of British Prime Minister Tony Blair that an “arc of extremism” is engulfing the Middle East.

“We’ve got to say ‘Enough is enough,’” he said. “This country has given us great values for life and so we must cooperate with the police; we must respect the law and regulations and traditions of this country.”

Rather than faulting Islam as a whole, Ovaisi, a Pakistan-born imam, believes it is the British government and Muslim community leaders — particularly imams — who are to blame for allowing extremists to dominate British Muslims.

Ovaisi estimates that 99% of imams in the United Kingdom are either illiterate or ignorant and, while they might not be extremists themselves, he said they provide the “bacteria” upon which extremism grows.

Ovaisi argued such individuals are too freely allowed into the United Kingdom — mostly from Pakistan — because some British politicians want their votes.

The Muslim chaplain also dismissed the idea of regulating the imams’ teaching through training and certificates.

“If they’re fundamentalists, they’ll find a way of covering up their fundamentalism,” he said. “What Muslims are generally lacking — particularly those from Pakistan — are basic common sense, reasoning and enlightened thinking.”


Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.