NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Two Muslim religious leaders say they were removed from a commercial airliner in Memphis on Friday and were told it was because the pilot refused to fly with them aboard.

Masudur Rahman, an instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, said by phone from the terminal at Memphis International that he and another imam had already been allowed to board their Delta Connection flight to Charlotte, N.C., before they were asked to de-board.

Rahman said he was dressed in traditional Indian clothing and his traveling companion was dressed in Arab garb, including traditional headgear.

Rahman said he and Mohamed Zaghloul, of the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, were cleared by security agents and boarded the plane for an 8:40 a.m. departure.

The aircraft pulled away from the gate, but the pilot then announced the plane must return, Rahman said. When it did, the imams were asked to go back to the boarding gate where Rahman said they were told the pilot was refusing to accept them because some other passengers could be uncomfortable.

Rahman said Delta officials talked with the pilot for more than a half-hour, but he still refused. The men were booked on a later flight.

They called the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“It’s racism and bias because of our religion and appearance and because of misinformation about our religion,” Rahman said. “If they understood Islam, they wouldn’t do this.”

He said a Delta manager apologized for the pilot’s actions, but he and Zaghloul never spoke directly with the pilot.