DURHAM, N.C. — Days after announcing that a Muslim call to prayer would echo from its historic chapel tower, Duke University changed course Jan. 15 following a flurry of calls and emails objecting to the plan.
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 Duke Chapel for their weekly prayer service.
The university had previously said a moderately amplified call to prayer would be read by members of the Muslim Students Association from the tower for about three minutes each Friday.
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 that 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.”
He also said there were concerns about safety and security, but he declined to elaborate on whether any specific threats had been received.
Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, wrote later in the day that the university made the right decision to cancel the plan to use the tower. However, Schoenfeld said the reversal was not due to Graham’s opposition.
Shalini Subbarao, 19, a sophomore from St. Louis, said she was disappointed with the school’s reversal as she walked past the chapel.
“I thought it was really progressive. It showed our openness to other religions,” she said of the original plan.
The campus was mostly business as usual on Jan. 15, with students leaving classes, waiting for a cross-campus bus or heading to evening meetings. Several said they were not familiar with the issue, while others’ reactions were mixed.
Ios Kotaogiannis, a 39-year-old doctoral candidate in computer science who is from DGreece, 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.
The chapel is identified by the school as a Christian church but also hosts Hindu services and has been used for Buddhist meditations.
The chapel’s associate dean for religious life, Christy Lohr Sapp, said before the plans were canceled that the move showed the school’s commitment to religious pluralism. In a column written for The News & Observer of Raleigh, Lohr Sapp acknowledged the headlines generated by violence by extremists in ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Qaida, contrasting it to what’s happening on campus.
“Yet, 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,” she wrote.
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. Duke has nearly 15,000 students, including about 6,500 undergraduates.
The school’s insignia features the Christian cross and a Latin motto translated as “learning and faith.”
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.
By Jonathan Drew. AP writers Michael Biesecker and Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh contributed to this report