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Enrollment of Muslim students is growing at Catholic colleges in U.S.

In the past few years, enrollment of Muslim students has spiked at Catholic universities across the country. Last year, Catholic colleges had an even higher percentage of Muslim students than the average four-year institution in the United States.

But there are also drawbacks to being Muslim on an overwhelmingly Catholic campus.

Most of the students eat everything but the pork in the student union. For the more orthodox, eating can be a tricky proposition that involves driving as far as Potomac to find halal meat, which is slaughtered according to strict guidelines.

Although other Catholic schools have established prayer rooms and student associations for their growing Muslim populations, Catholic University has neither. For their five daily prayers, Muslims often scramble to find empty classrooms where they can kneel, face Mecca and bow before God.

Some students meditate in the school's chapels and at the cathedral that looms over the entire campus - the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

An adjustment

During his more than four years as a graduate student at Catholic, Ali Basiri has become one of the regulars at the small chapel in Caldwell Hall, the oldest building on campus. Basiri, 27, has spent so much time in the chapel's pews that he has befriended the organist who practices there.

It took him a while to adjust to life outside Iran. During his first semester, he lived in the dorms and tried not to be shocked when women held out their hands to shake his and sometimes hugged him.

In Iran, Basiri said, all schools run by the Islamic government are religious. The Iranian university where he studied for his bachelor's degree was named after a Muslim cleric, and his engineering department had detailed rules for praying and a dedicated room separated for men and women by blankets.

But at Catholic, he has forged new ways to connect spiritually. Several times a week, the electrical engineering student makes his way past the marble statue of the Virgin Mary at the Caldwell chapel entrance and listens in the pews to Islamic prayers on his MP3 player.

"I feel there is something powerful here because people are thinking about God all the time and not just about their own life or studies," Basiri said.

He has struck up friendships with equally fervent Catholic believers.

"We do this thing where he teaches me his prayers in Arabic, and I share with him the prayers I say as a Catholic," said one of his friends, Kenny White, 20, a sophomore from Annapolis. "I've learned about God by learning about him and his own faith. It's been a really important and beautiful part of being here."

'Proud of who we are'

It was that kind of exchange that prompted Basiri's attempts to start a Muslim student association. He wanted to help Muslim students connect and gather for prayer in addition to helping spur conversations across religions.

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