Duke cancels plan for Muslim call to prayer from tower

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University canceled a plan Thursday to use a chapel tower for a weekly call to prayer for Muslims after getting bombarded with calls and emails from alumni and others, officials said.

Instead, Muslims will gather for their call to prayer in a grassy area in front of the chapel before heading into a chapel room for their weekly prayer service. The university initially said an amplified call to prayer would be read by members of the Muslim Students Association from the tower for three minutes each Friday.

The plan drew the ire of evangelist Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham, who urged Duke alumni to withhold support because of violence against Christians that he attributed to Muslims. He wrote on Facebook the decision is playing out as "Christianity is being excluded from the public square."

He wrote later in the day that the university made the right decision to cancel. However, Schoenfeld said the reversal was not based solely on Graham's opposition.

Shalini Subbarao, 19, a sophomore from St. Louis, said as she walked in front of the chapel that she was disappointed with the school's reversal.

"I thought it was really progressive. It showed out openness to other religions," she said of the original plan.

The campus was mostly business as usual on Thursday afternoon, with students starting to head from class. Several said they were not familiar with the issue, while others' reactions were mixed.

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 and Observer in 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. It 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 it has more than 700 students who identify themselves as Muslim. Schoenfeld said Duke was one of the first universities in the country to have 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.

Associated Press reporter Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this report from Raleigh.