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A study in comfort

More Muslims hear the call to chaplaincy as a way to share their faith yet minister to all

Imam Salih Yucel sits beside the hospital bed of Fazal Mabud, a 66-year-old native of Pakistan who lives in Brighton, and begins offering him spiritual guidance. Mabud had heart surgery six months before, but it was unsuccessful. The next morning he would go under the knife again.

"You are in good hands," Yucel, a Muslim chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital , reassures Mabud. Yucel counsels Mabud to say a prayer of supplication and repeat an Arabic word for God 100 times in preparation for the operation. Then the pair bend their heads, turn their open palms toward their faces, and begin to pray.

Mabud is one of about 11 patients Yucel will visit at the hospital on this day. His weekly schedule includes working two days at Brigham and Women's and two days at Children's Hospital Boston . He's also on call at the North Shore Medical Center .

One reason for his popularity could be this: Yucel is the only Muslim chaplain in the Boston area with clinical pastoral education, an interfaith training program that teaches spiritual leaders how to care for people in crisis, says Mary Robinson , director of Children's Hospital's Chaplaincy program. Because of this training, says Robinson, "if he were doing a preoperative visit, he's skilled in caring for a Roman Catholic or a Jew or a Protestant who would like to have prayer before their surgery."

CPE, as it's called, is one of the qualifications employers seek when they hire chaplains, but it's a rarity among imams, Robinson says. In fact, Robinson remembers that when the hospital hired its first Muslim chaplain 13 years ago it couldn't find an applicant with the CPE certification.

That situation is changing with the help of Connecticut's Hartford Seminary , which seven years ago established what remains the only degree program in the nation for Muslim chaplains -- religious leaders who do their work inside institutions such as prisons, colleges/universities, corporations, the military or, in Yucel's case, hospitals. Hartford Seminary offers a 48-credit master of arts degree in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, which takes two years to complete. There's also a one-year, 24-credit graduate certificate. Together the two degrees equal a master ' s of divinity, the basic requirement for many chaplaincy jobs.

The program began with three participants. This year, 34 students are enrolled. Graduates most often work in higher education or in the military, but the seminary fields job requests from a variety of places.

"We get lot of demand from various institutions," says Abdullah Antepli , 33, who became the third graduate of the program in 2004, then immediately became its coordinator; he was elevated to associate director this year. Antepli has recently heard about Muslim chaplaincy openings at Bridgeport Hospital , Yale-New Haven Medical Center, and Catholic Charities . "Actually," he says, "we have more demand than we can keep up with."

Most attribute the increasing demand to the growing size of the Muslim population in the United States. Estimates put the number of Muslims nationally at 5 million to 8 million. Although any chaplain can ostensibly cater to people from a range of faiths, Muslim chaplains can address more adeptly the multiple challenges of practicing Islam in this country.

"I can't imagine any non-Muslim chaplain talking about Ramadan , leading Friday prayer, and explaining Islamic dietary law," Antepli says. "I can't imagine any non-Muslim chaplain, no matter how well-trained, responding to the unique identity crisis that Muslims are facing after Sept. 11. Islam is at the center of attention and there's so many negative messages conveyed to this society about this faith and faith tradition. You need a reliable source person on campus, at the hospital, in the prison system who understands the stereotypes and the scapegoating."

No statistics exist showing the size of the Muslim chaplaincy community. Although the Association of Professional Chaplains and other organizations certify chaplains, "at this point in time institutions can employ anyone they want and give the job title of chaplain," says Josephine Schrader , executive director of the Association of Professional Chaplains.

A look at the number of Muslim chaplains certified by the association at least offers a glimpse into the community. In 2000 the organization had 1,600 certified chaplains, only one of them Muslim. Last year, there were 2,000 certified chaplains, four of them Muslim.

Muslim chaplaincy is a particularly American creation. The role doesn't exist in predominantly Muslim countries, since Muslims there have a wide range of familial and spiritual support. No equivalent to the master's of divinity, which is a Judeo-Christian creation, exists in Islamic culture. Instead scholars pass down religious knowledge orally. Once the student gains enough knowledge, he or she becomes an imam.

The interest in Muslim chaplaincy emerges as the growing Muslim-American community develops its own culture and begins to understand what support systems are necessary to suit its particular needs.

"The Hartford Seminary offers a Western model," says Kashif Abdul-Karim , who worked as a Muslim prison chaplain for 17 years in Connecticut before leaving the job last year. "It's not something traditional Muslims use, and yet it's what society is now looking for."

Doing their homework
On a recent Tuesday night a group of about 20 students of various faiths, five of them from the Muslim chaplaincy program, gather in a room inside Hartford Seminary's strikingly modern building. They're there for the Essential Skills in Pastoral Counseling and Ministry course taught by Benjamin Watts , a senior pastor at the Shiloh Baptist Church in New London, Conn. For this second class of the semester, the homework was to read the first chapter of the course book, "Practical Psychology for Pastors." Now a student is reading her report on a section of the chapter that explore s when counselors should intervene with a client and what form the intervention should take.

Marwa Aly , 22, who started the chaplaincy program in the fall, asks Watts how she can be more inviting to the students she works with who seem to be rejecting her efforts to reach out to them. In January she started working six hours a week as a chaplain at Manhattanville College as part of her program requirement.

Watts suggests that she try friendly, casual outreach to break down barriers. That way, he says, "You have now broken the ice." When that student needs guidance in the future, maybe they'll think of her because she seemed nice.

During another part of the class, Watts imagines a scenario in which a counselor must decide whether to intervene.

"You will be at the prison with someone you may have seen come to the chapel regularly," says Watts, "All of a sudden, they become reserved, they're not talking." He then gives some examples of what the counselor could do.

Bilal Ansari , 35, who began working as a Muslim prison chaplain 10 years ago and entered the Muslim chaplaincy program in the fall, nods his head in agreement . Soon Ansari raises his hand to make the point that prayer is not always the answer.

"Sometimes they need just a touch," says Ansari. Or a laugh. "They need," he says, "real human physical contact."

Ansari began volunteering as a chaplain in 1997. Now he works two days a week -- nearly 27 hours total -- at a men's prison in Niantic, Conn. Ansari says he decided to enroll in the Muslim chaplaincy program because he realized "that there are areas where I struggled to reach the men sometime s ."

One challenge? Tempering the form of Islam the prisoners practiced. Many members of the prison population receive religious materials that gave them an unorthodox, and sometimes incorrect, perspective about Islam, says Ansari. "They think they know what's right and that they have the authority to interpret the scriptures in this way." This mindset created a wedge between the prison staff and the incarcerated Muslims.

By taking the Islamic Law course taught by Ingrid Mattson , the director and founder of the Muslim chaplaincy program, Ansari learned how to give the prisoners a better understanding of the religion.

"That's something I've been very effective at this last year," says Ansari. "Having them turn the corner: There is another way to see this religion."