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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
US students begin Koran course
A woman holds US flag and Christian cross
Religion and education - a difficult mix in the US
New students at a US University have started discussing a book on the Koran, after a court refused to halt a summer reading programme.


You don't get new perspective by not trying to learn about new things

Student enrolled in the reading programme
About 3,500 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started debating the book, as demonstrators gathered nearby to protest against the assignment.

A Christian organisation had accused the university of unconstitutionally promoting one religion at the expense of others.

The incident has highlighted contrasting attitudes towards Islam in America, following the 11 September attacks.

The case arose when new students at Chapel Hill were assigned to read about 130 pages of professor Michael Sells's book, "Approaching the Qur'an", for the university's summer course.

'New perspective'

The university felt that interest in Islam had increased among students.

Officials said that a student could decline to read the book, but would have to write an essay explaining why.

Attorneys for a conservative Christian group, the Family Policy Network, and three students argued that the assignment violated constitutional provisions against state-sponsored religion and sued the University.


This country was founded on Christianity, not on the Koran

Protester
But last Thursday, a court refused to stop the course - a decision that was upheld by an appeals court on Monday.

Hours later, discussion of the book began on the campus.

"We're at a liberal arts school that's supposed to open our minds," one participating student told the New York Times.

"You don't get new perspective by not trying to learn about new things"

Controversy

As the readings went on, a group of students held a small rally against the programme.

"This country was founded on Christianity, not on the Koran," said one protestor.

"If they can have the Koran be mandatory, why not the Bible, why not other religious books?"

Although the study and teaching of Islam in US universities has increased in popularity since 11 September, conservatives and Christian religious groups have linked Islam to terror.

Shortly after the attacks, evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, wrote in the Wall Street Journal newspaper that the Koran "provides ample evidence that Islam encourages violence in order to win converts and to reach the ultimate goal of an Islamic world".

See also:

07 Aug 02 | Americas
26 Jul 02 | Americas
12 Jul 02 | Education
23 Jul 02 | Americas
26 Dec 01 | Middle East
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