Armed police removed a British man from an easyJet plane after a passenger saw a WhatsApp message on his phone about ‘prayer’ and feared he was a terrorist.
Devout Christian Laolu Opebiyi, 40, from London, was ordered off the flight at Luton Airport and asked if he was converting to Islam as the 6.45am flight to Amsterdam took off without him.
A fellow passenger had been spying on his phone from over his shoulder and may have misread the title of the group ‘Isi men’ as ‘Isis men’, he says.
His accuser then asked him: ‘What do you mean by “prayer?”‘ before walking towards the cockpit and asking to get off. In the minutes that followed another six passengers also left the plane.
Two armed police officers then arrived and told Mr Opebiyi to pick up his belongings and get off the plane too.
They then repeatedly questioned him about his faith, which church he attended in London and whether he was considering converting to Islam.
He told the Guardian: ‘Even if I was a Muslim, it was pretty unfair the way I was treated. I don’t think anyone, irrespective of their religion should be treated in such a way.
‘If we keep on giving into this kind of bigotry and irrational fear, I dare say that the terrorists will have achieved their aim.’
He explained to police the WhatsApp group was called ‘ISI’ because it is short for ‘iron sharpens iron’ – a Bible passage about prayer which says: ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’.
The police then released him but he was further shamed because as he returned to the easyJet desk to get to Holland the seven passengers refused to travel with him.
One said: ‘If he is on the next flight, I am not getting on the flight.’
He eventually travelled to Amsterdam on the 10.25am flight – four hours after he was originally due to fly.
Mr Opebiyi now fears he is on a terror watchlist because he was stopped by officials as he travelled back from Amsterdam the following day. His passport also failed to work at the electronic departure gates.
He said: ‘Someone felt I was a terrorist because they saw the word “prayer” on my phone and now I stand in uncertainty about my freedom of movement in and out of the UK’.
Bedforshire Police, who man the airport, have defended the handling of the case.
A spokesman said they spoke to him and ‘were satisfied that there was no concern around the passenger travelling’.
EasyJet apologised today but said they had to investigate.
A spokesman said: ‘The safety and security of its passengers and crew is our highest priority which means that if a security concern is raised we will always investigate it as a precautionary measure. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused to the passenger’.