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Duke University reverses decision, will not allow Muslim call to prayer at its chapel

In the face of mounting controversy, Duke University reversed itself Thursday afternoon and announced it will not allow a Muslim call to prayer from its iconic chapel Friday.

The Durham university had said earlier in the week it would permit a weekly, three-minute chant by members of the Duke Muslim Students Association to be “moderately amplified” via speakers in the Duke Chapel’s bell tower.

That decision was met with growing anger in some corners of social media and elsewhere. Evangelist Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, denounced the move Wednesday and called for people to stop funding Duke until it reversed its decision.

“What began as something that was meant to be unifying was turning into something that was the opposite,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. “It was clear we needed to reconsider.”

A Duke administrator had earlier touted the move as a way to promote religious inclusiveness at the school. But the university received hundreds of calls and emails, “many of which were quite vitriolic,” Schoenfeld said. “The level of vitriol in the responses was unlike any other controversy we have seen here in quite some time.”

There also were security concerns, Schoenfeld added.

Muslim community members will instead gather on the quadrangle outside the chapel and do the call to prayer, called the “adhan,” before moving to their regular location in the chapel basement for prayers. They have met there for the past several years.

More than 700 of Duke’s 14,850 students identify themselves as Muslim, according to the university.

‘Not a religion of peace’

Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, took to Facebook to lace into Duke’s initial decision.

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Thursday before the reversal, Graham told The Charlotte Observer that Duke should not allow the chapel to be used for the call to prayer. “It’s wrong because it’s a different god,” he said. “Using the bell tower, that signifies worship of Jesus Christ. Using (it) as a minaret is wrong.”

Graham did say Muslim students should be allowed to worship on campus. “Let Duke donate the land and let Saudi Arabia build a mosque for them.”

And referencing the recent terrorist attacks in France, Graham added, “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

Schoenfeld declined to comment on criticism by Graham or others.

Late Thursday afternoon, Graham applauded Duke’s reversal in a Facebook post. “They made the right decision!” he stated.

Osama Idlibi, president of the Muslim American Society of Charlotte, decried Graham’s earlier statements and called him “an Islamophobe.”

Idlibi said it was unfortunate that Duke had changed its plans.

“I don’t think it accomplishes the religious pluralism that they want to promote at the university,” he said.

International headlines

Duke’s initial announcement, and Graham’s reaction, quickly made international news, with stories on such sites as CNN, Breitbart.com, The Huffington Post and a British website, the Daily Mail.

Graham’s initial Facebook post has been shared more than 57,000 times and has more than 70,000 “likes.”

Twitter has seen people praise and pillory Duke before the latest announcement.

One person tweeted, “This #Duke alum hopes current Duke students visibly refuse to submit to Islam tomorrow at 1 p.m.” Another wrote, “Today I am thankful to be an alumna of #Duke and proud of their continual efforts in supporting all expressions of faith on their campus.”

Earlier this week in an op-ed in The (Raleigh) News & Observer, Christy Lohr Sapp, the university’s associate dean for religious life, defended the chapel use.

She said Duke’s Muslim community is a peaceful and prayerful one, the opposite of how Islam is seen on the nightly news.

“This opportunity represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission and connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation,” she stated.

Religious diversity

Duke University was created in 1924, an expansion of what was then Trinity College. Duke’s primary religious affiliation is with the United Methodist Church, but the school officially is non-denominational.

The 210-foot-tall Duke Chapel, built in the mid-1930s, is available for all campus religious life groups to hold their prayers and worship services.

Duke hired its first Muslim chaplain in 2009, the same year it created the Center for Muslim Life at the university. On its Facebook page, the Muslim student association said it is committed to fostering campus and community-wide engagement with Islam and related issues.

“The collective Muslim community is truly grateful and excited about Duke’s intentionality toward religious and cultural diversity,” Imam Adeel Zeb, Muslim chaplain at Duke, said in a statement before the reversal.

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

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