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Duke's Downsized Call to Prayer Draws Hundreds in Support of School's Muslims

A Muslim call to prayer amplified from the school's bell tower was canceled because of backlash and security threats, according to the university.
Image: Duke Divinity graduate students Sarah Martindell and Elliott Smith show support for Duke Muslims
Duke Divinity graduate students Sarah Martindell and Elliott Smith show support for Duke Muslims on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, in Durham, N.C. The earlier decision by Duke Chapel to have Muslim students issue a call to prayer from the bell tower was rescinded and resulted in a show of support from hundreds of Duke students for their fellow students who are Muslim.Christine T. Nguyen / The Herald-Sun via AP

Hundreds of students of varying religions gathered outside of the chapel on Duke University’s campus Friday to take part in an Islamic call to prayer — in support of the school's Muslim population, which had been offered then denied the opportunity to broadcast the call from the chapel’s bell tower.

“I was out here to show my support and solidarity for the diversity and the religious beliefs for all of Duke’s students,” said Steven Boyd after the call to prayer, or “adhan,” was read in English and Arabic.

The adhan was heard over a small amplifier on Friday, but Duke had announced Tuesday that the three minute chant would resonate from the chapel’s bell tower each Friday before the Duke Muslim Students Association met for their weekly prayers in the chapel’s basement, as they have been doing for years.

“This opportunity represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission,” Christy Lohr Sapp, the chapel’s associate dean for religious life, had said in an earlier statement. In an article in the News & Observer of Raleigh, Lorr Sapp elaborated that recent attacks in Paris and Pakistan had shed a light on Muslims that wasn’t accurate, and Duke championed the more public call to prayer to celebrate a Muslim community that is “peaceful and prayerful.”

But the call to prayer from the bell tower was canceled before its inaugural ceremony because of backlash and security threats, according to Duke.

On Friday, Michael Schoenfeld, the school's vice president for public affairs and government relations, told reporters that the school was “made aware of serious and credible concerns about safety and security,” but didn't elaborate on specific threats.

“It was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect,” Schoenfeld said in a statement Thursday.

Evangelist Franklin Graham was particularly opposed to the call the prayer idea, taking to Twitter and Facebook to discourage alumni and donors from supporting the school until Duke reversed their 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 said.

Graham could not be reached Friday for further comment because he was traveling, according to Todd Shearer, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which Franklin Graham is the president. Shearer would not comment on Graham’s behalf, telling NBC News: “You are seeking controversy where there is none.”

Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, said he realized Graham doesn’t represent all Christians, and he hopes that Muslims at Duke recognize the same. “Let us respond not in kind, but by doubling down on our commitment to education, rigorous debate, humanistic encounter, and an unwavering pluralism,” Safi said.

On Friday, unwavering pluralism was apparent as students held signs at the call to prayer that said things like “Duke Divinity supports you” and “Let us worship together.”

Richard Phillips, a sophomore and member of Duke’s Presbyterian Campus Ministry said he and many of his Christian friends were “really saddened” by Duke’s decision to downsize the Muslim call to prayer. “I hope something good comes out of this ... we can get some actually good discussion out of this,” Phillips said.

Graduate student Christopher Paul, 32, said he also hoped the evident support of Muslim Duke students would spark a conversation about “academic and religious freedom." Paul said he was “embarrassed” that Duke reversed the decision to have a public call to prayer. “If a place like Duke can’t stand up to the ideas of religious and intellectual freedom, we really can’t expect anyone to,” Paul said.

In a statement, Duke’s Muslim Student Association thanked the university for originally introducing the idea and for other accommodations the school provides to Muslim students. "However, we want to show that Duke students are also tolerant of religious pluralism and are ready for this next step towards coexistence, despite intolerant comments and threats from others," the group said.

Duke is a private university with about 15,000 students. According to the school officials, more than 700 of its students identify themselves as Muslim.

Jesse Dembo and Emmanuelle Saliba contributed to this report.