Virginia district cancels school over Islamic lesson anger

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2015 12:40 PM

STAUNTON, Va. (AP) — A rural Virginia school district canceled classes and a holiday concert after being flooded with angry messages over a school calligraphy lesson that involved copying a Muslim statement of faith in Arabic.

Tens of thousands of emails and Facebook posts have been received, some "threatening and very profane in nature," said Augusta County Sheriff Randall D. Fisher. No specific threats have been made, though Fisher said he has dedicated an investigator to comb through the messages as a precaution.

Augusta County school officials said in a statement that they canceled the events, including athletics and a fundraiser, as a cautionary measure after consulting law enforcement and the school board.

Anger over the lesson has escalated since a teacher at Riverheads High School gave students an assignment that 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." The teacher's lesson was drawn from instructional material that also includes Judeo-Christian assignments.

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

The teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, declined comment. A Facebook group supporting LaPorte had more than 2,000 members on Friday. Many commenters defended LaPorte and the school district.

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

"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.

Advocacy groups have said a spate of anti-Muslim incidents across the U.S. recently can be linked to the mass shooting in California and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians.

In Virginia, Fairfax County authorities charged a man last month with leaving a fake bomb at a mosque. And in Spotsylvania County, 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.

The News Virginian said Fishersville resident Tim Cooper called the newspaper's office to ask why the Wilson Memorial High School holiday concert was canceled.

"It looks like fear wins again," Cooper told the newspaper.