Christianity is the dominant religion in North Dakota. So, finding a place to worship isn't a problem. But for other religions, the options are slim to none. There are mosques in Fargo and Grand Forks, but none in Bismarck. Muslims here say that's made it difficult to come together as a community. It's not something you hear often in North Dakota. But every Friday, the sounds of Muslim prayers fill this chapel at Saint Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck.
(Nadim Koleilat, Practicing Muslim): "Not many people know that Muslims have been one of the first homesteaders here in the state. In fact, the first mosque in North America was in McCluskey.”
(Marisa): But there's no mosque in Bismarck, which leaves a gaping hole for the tight-knit group.
(Alaa Koleilat, Practicing Muslim): "It's really important to have a center for your own community to feel a sense of unity, to feel that there's a place where you don't have to explain yourself all the time. It's like I don't eat pork and everybody's like, oh me too, you know?”
(Marisa): Koleilat says growing up Muslim in a mostly Christian area can sometimes be hard.
(Alaa): "From day one, we knew that we were different, just from, I didn't wear the head scarf when I was younger, I started wearing it in sixth grade. But before then, I always knew my parents looked different, we had a different language spoken at home, I didn't go to church like everybody else did.”
(Marisa) But she says she never felt like non-Muslims judged her.
(Alaa): "Growing up in Bismarck was amazing. I feel like the people here were open-minded in the sense that they wanted to learn about Muslims and Islam so I felt like I was always kind of teaching people a little bit about myself.”
(Marisa): Historically, the Muslim population in the Dakotas is small. Right now, there's less than half a percent of the population of 700,000.
(Leroy Huizenga, Univ. of Mary Theology Dept.): "The people who settled this area were largely Scandinavian Lutheran and German Catholics and since they settled, there hasn't been a large amount of migration into the state until just recently with the oil boom.”
(Marisa) The oil boom has had a ripple effect on the Muslim community.
(Nadim): "The numbers have grown up from probably being four to being at least 20, 25 people attending the Friday prayer.”
(Marisa): Now, those couple of dozen are starting to outgrow the chapel at St. Alexius.
(Nadim): "We're really grateful to the sisters of St. Alexius helping us and supporting us out for over 10 years being here.”
(Marisa): But, as they start looking for a new place to go, St. Alexius says it’s still open to anyone.
(Sr. Renee Zastoupil, St. Alexius Spiritual Services): "As Sisters of St. Benedict, as St. Alexius Medical Center, we welcome all religions, all faiths and anyone that doesn't even profess any religion, it doesn't matter to us. What does matter is that we welcome them and they feel at home.”
(Marisa): Doctor Koleilat says the Muslim community is taking the first steps to finding a new place to worship.
Marisa DeCandido Reporting