Oklahoma Muslims were surprised by an unexpected visitor on Monday at an annual advocacy gathering at the state Capitol.

Gov. Kevin Stitt made an unscheduled visit to the 2019 “Muslim Day at the Capitol,” becoming the first Oklahoma governor to greet Muslim participants in the event’s five-year history. The day is designed to bring Muslims to the Capitol to directly meet with their state legislators to discuss issues impacting Oklahoma’s Muslim community.

Shortly before noon Monday, Stitt walked into the Senate Chambers, introduced himself and welcomed Muslims and others who gathered there for a discussion session with two state legislators. He shook hands with several people and left the chamber, where he talked briefly with several community leaders including Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma chapter, and the Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.

“If different groups are going to take their time to come to the Capitol, I think it’s my responsibility as governor to come welcome them and say hello and say we’re all Oklahomans,” Stitt told The Oklahoman. “I’m the governor for all 4 million Oklahomans, and I just wanted to make sure that they knew that they’re welcome here.”

Soltani, whose organization sponsors the Day the Capitol events, said the governor’s appearance was a “pleasant surprise.”

“After years and years of trying to engage with our former governor, Gov. Mary Fallin, and not being able to even get a meeting out of her office, it just fills my heart with joy to see that Gov. Stitt was willing to take time out of his day and stop by and welcome the Muslim community and to recognize that we are part and parcel of this state,” Soltani said.

He said the governor’s visit was another sign that Muslims are not as unwelcome at the Capitol as they have felt in the past.

Muslims who walked into the Capitol on Monday were greeted inside and outside the Capitol building by about 15 interfaith supporters from the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma who held up signs with messages of support. Nearby, a husband-and-wife team of protesters held up anti-Muslim signs.

Soltani reminded the crowd of about 150 participants that much has changed since the first Muslim Day at the Capitol when interfaith supporters felt the need to create a pathway of support for Muslims as they were met with a large group of protesters who awaited them on the Capitol plaza.

“There were about three dozen protesters then. Here we are five years later, and I heard there were two outside, so I think if we continue this tradition, one thing that you will see is that love and peace will win over hate and animosity,” he said. “Five years ago when we walked in the Capitol and prepared for this day, people looked at us and wondered why are we here. What business do Muslims have here at the Capitol? … but now when we walk through the halls of this Capitol, not only do we see people smile at us and welcome us, but we see the legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, stop us in the hall whereas before we had to chase them down.”

Meanwhile, the day included a panel discussion on poverty, racism, incarceration and other issues challenging Oklahomans; a keynote session with Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa; a youth panel discussion; prayer and lunch on the second floor rotunda. The event culminated with participants dividing into groups to meet their legislators, many for the first time, to discuss issues of concern or interest.

“When you walk in to talk to your House and Senate members, walk in with your head held high, walk in with a sense of confidence and know that you belong here just like anyone else does,” Soltani told the group.

Like Soltani, Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said he was pleased with the governor’s welcome.

“I”m encouraged by his outreaching to us. I’m encouraged that he’s open-minded,” Enchassi said.