Virginia district cancels school over Islamic lesson anger

2015-12-18 21:23


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Staunton - Schools in a Virginia were closed on Friday and a weekend holiday concert and athletic events were cancelled amid an angry backlash about a school lesson involving the Islamic faith.

Augusta County Sheriff Randall D Fisher said school officials decided to close school because officials have received tens of thousands of e-mails and Facebook posts, including some that were "threatening and very profane in nature". Fischer said no specific threats have been made.

"Just general threats and discontent and hate," Fisher said.

Anger over the lesson has escalated since a teacher at Riverheads High School had students in her class complete an assignment one week ago. It involved practicing calligraphy and writing a statement in Arabic - the Shahada, a profession of faith recited in Muslims' daily prayers. It is omnipresent in religious imagery, often appearing on the walls of mosques and in religious art, but also on the flags of groups such as the Islamic State.

The statement translated to: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

At a forum on Tuesday, one parent said the assignment promoted a false religious doctrine, while other parents expressed outrage. Some demanded that the teacher be fired.

Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher of the class, declined to comment. A Facebook group supporting LaPorte had more than 2 000 members on Friday. Many defended LaPorte and the school district and expressed dismay over the backlash.

Besides the cancellation of classes, school administrators also called off a fundraiser to benefit a local family and all athletic events.

The teacher's lesson was drawn from instructional material that also includes Judeo-Christian assignments.

School officials said the aim of the lesson was to illustrate the complexity of the written Arabic language, not to promote any religious system.

In a statement, district officials said they will use a different example of Arabic in future classes.

"Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth's Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future," Doug Shifflett, Augusta County's assistant superintendent for administration, said in a statement.

Fisher said the episode has taken up a lot of his department's time, and an investigator is combing through e-mails and Facebook messages to screen for potential specific threats.

"There's a lot of phobia out there across this country," he said.

The cancellations come after several anti-Islam incidents in Virginia.

Last month, authorities charged a man with leaving a fake bomb at a mosque. Elsewhere, a sheriff's deputy had to halt a community meeting on a proposed mosque after a speaker was interrupted several times by residents who denounced Islam.

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