Muslim rights group wants Waite Park, Catholic Charities to reject training

By Stephanie Dickrell and Mark Sommerhauser, Saint Cloud Times

An Islamic civil rights group wants Waite Park police to call off a training event on Somali history and culture that the group calls misleading.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) on Monday asked the Waite Park Police Department and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud to reject Tuesday's training event, "Understanding the People of Somalia."

A CAIR-MN spokeswoman says the training, a version of which was criticized in 2011 when it was given to other Minnesota law-enforcement agencies, inaccurately conflates Somalis and Muslims with terrorism. The group also is critical of the former Ramsey County sheriff who's leading the presentation.

But Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud says the event is simply a bid to better understand the local Somali population. Spokespersons for Waite Park police and Catholic Charities also say the training presentation was revised Monday to reflect concerns the terror group al-Shabaab could be unfairly portrayed as being linked to Islam as a whole.

A flier for the training event lists al-Shabaab as an "Islamic Extremist" organization. Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate, has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization since 2008, according to the U.S. State Department.

CAIR-MN executive director Lori Saroya said the flier unfairly suggests the activities of al-Shabaab are rooted in or supported by Islam. In fact, the vast majority of Muslims and Somalis reject the group, Saroya said.

"What they're doing is outside of Islam and should not be affiliated with our religion," Saroya said.

Waite Park's community service officer, Alicia Mages, says the training has been revised to reflect these concerns. Mages said the revision stems from talks Monday with members of the local Somali community.

Steve Bresnahan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, said he personally apologized to local Somalis for the flier during Monday's talks.

Bresnahan said his organization has provided services to local Somali immigrants. He said he's disappointed a group would suggest Catholic Charities would do anything to unfairly malign local Somalis. (Read more)