Duke religious leaders disagreed on Muslim call-to-prayer decision

Duke University’s religious leaders say they will seek constructive dialogue after sharp disagreement about the idea of broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer from the iconic Duke Chapel bell tower.

In a letter to the chapel community, Duke Chapel Dean Luke Powery wrote that last week’s controversy raised questions about interfaith relations, sacred spaces and the symbolism of the chapel. “Thoughtful, faithful people have agreed and disagreed with the various decisions made,” he wrote.

That was perhaps an understatement.

Days before, Divinity School Dean Richard Hays had written a letter to the school, saying the Chapel’s original decision to allow the broadcasting of the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, from atop the chapel, was “ill-advised.” He wrote that he had not been consulted or notified about it and agreed with Duke’s quick reversal of the decision.

“Any decision to permit the use of a prominent Christian place of worship as a minaret for Muslim proclamation will, in our time, have immediate global repercussions,” Hays wrote on Jan. 15. “Any discussion about such a proposal should take into careful account the perspective of millions of Christians living in Islamic societies where their faith is prohibited or persecuted.”

He further stated that while the chapel is used for many university events, “it was constructed with explicitly Christian iconography, and it has a long history of explicitly Christian worship.”

Both Powery and Hays said this week they had nothing further to say beyond their letters. Duke Chapel and the Divinity School are separate entities at Duke.

On Jan. 15 after fierce criticism from Christian evangelist Franklin Graham and others, university officials rescinded the decision to broadcast the call to prayer from atop the chapel. At the time, they said the effort to unify was not having the intended effect. They later cited threats and serious concerns about safety.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s senior spokesman, said disagreement among those at Duke was a factor.

“We said from the beginning that the initial decision to have the call to prayer from the Chapel tower was not fully and thoroughly deliberated among the key stakeholders in the university before it was announced,” Schoenfeld wrote in an email. “Certainly the Divinity School would be one of those stakeholders.”

In the end, hundreds turned out last Friday, when the traditional call to prayer was amplified from a small speaker on the steps of the chapel. The Muslim community at Duke has held weekly prayers in the basement of the Christian chapel for two years.

It had been a painful and stressful week for the Muslim community, Powery wrote in his letter last Sunday. He reiterated that Duke Chapel’s mission “is to stand as a beacon of Christian hope that bridges faith and learning on Duke’s campus.”

While disagreeing about how the chapel should and should not be used, the two religious leaders did agree that the dialogue should continue.

Powery wrote that in the coming weeks the chapelwould look for ways to continue the dialogue “as we all strive for deeper understanding and greater faithfulness to God.”

Hays, in his letter, said: “The challenge for all of us is to undertake the arduous work of engaging in respectful and frank dialogue and praying, each from within our own traditions, for the hope of peace in a world of conflict.”

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