DURHAM, N.C. – Before it unraveled, a plan to use Duke University’s chapel tower in a call to prayer for the school’s Muslim community was meant to promote religious unity and pluralism.
One administrator explained in a newspaper column that “at Duke University, the Muslim community represents a strikingly different face of Islam than is seen on the nightly news: one that is peaceful and prayerful.” Religious pluralism is part of the school’s mission, wrote Christy Lohr Sapp, Duke Chapel’s associate dean for religious life.
But after a flurry of objections arrived by phone and email – along with reported security concerns – Duke canceled a plan to have members of the Muslim Students Association read a moderately amplified call to prayer from the tower for about three minutes each Friday.
Instead, Muslims will gather for their call to prayer in a grassy area near the 210-foot gothic tower before heading into a room in the chapel for their weekly prayer service. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said it would be up to the students if they want to use some sort of amplification.
The original plan drew the ire of evangelist Franklin Graham, who urged Duke alumni to withhold support because of violence against Christians he attributed to Muslims. Schoenfeld said emails and calls came from alumni and others in the community.
“There was considerable traffic and conversation and even a little bit of confusion, both within the campus and certainly outside, about what Duke was doing,” Schoenfeld said. “The purposes and goals and even the facts had been so mischaracterized as to turn it into a divisive situation, not a unifying situation.”
Many had questions and concerns about the structure that’s an important piece of the school’s identity. The tower of the 83-year-old Duke Chapel was modeled after Canterbury Cathedral in England.
“The chapel is a very powerful symbol to anybody who has been at Duke or is connected to Duke. We have to be very thoughtful and deliberate in the way that it is used and presented,” Schoenfeld said.
He also said there were concerns about safety and security, but he declined to elaborate on whether any specific threats had been received.
The private university in Durham, northwest of Raleigh, was founded by Methodists and Quakers and its divinity school has historically been connected to the United Methodist Church. The school’s insignia features the Christian cross and a Latin motto translated as “learning and faith.”
Reactions to the change in plans Thursday afternoon ranged from disappointment to ambivalence.
Several divinity students walking by the chapel on the way to their “intro to preaching” class expressed disappointment.
“We’re all very upset right now,” said Daniel Ray, 24, in his third year of the divinity master’s degree program.
Ray said he feels like the school wants to recruit Muslim students and take their tuition, but deny them the opportunity to openly worship. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
The issue has been a topic of conversation at the divinity school.
“We were talking about it today in my Christian ethics class,” said Indhira Udofia, 26, who is in her third year pursuing master’s degrees in divinity and social work. “Most were siding with the Muslim students,” she said.
The chapel is identified by the school as a Christian church but also hosts Hindu services and has been used for Buddhist meditations.
In her column written for The News & Observer of Raleigh, Lohr Sapp acknowledged the headlines generated from violence by extremists in the Islamic State group, Boko Haram and al-Qaida. But she contrasted it with the peaceful worship of Muslims at Duke.
“This face of the faith will be given more of a voice as the Duke Muslim community begins chanting the adhan, the call to prayer, from the Duke Chapel bell tower on Fridays beginning this week,” she wrote.
Duke has nearly 15,000 students, including about 6,500 undergraduates. The university says more than 700 of its students identify themselves as Muslim. Schoenfeld said Duke was one of the first universities in the country to hire a full-time Muslim imam when the first was named in 2008. Muslim students have been holding prayer services in the basement of the chapel for the past two years.
Still, Ios Kotaogiannis, a 39-year-old doctoral candidate in computer science who is from Greece, said he was glad officials reversed their decision.
“I’m a secular person. I’m not against religion. I think religion is good. But it has its place – inside the chapel,” he said.