- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) A group of 16 freshman and transfer students gathered here Monday for orientation and talked about the afterlife, Judgment Day and how passages from the Koran related to Christianity and other religions more familiar to them.
They were just a few of the university's 4,200 new students who were required to read a book about Islam's holy text and be prepared to discuss it, an assignment that drew litigation from students who said it promotes the religion practiced by the September 11 terrorists.
"The class worked out better than I had expected. The students were engaged and I feel like we opened them up to a cultural experience they've never had before," said UNC-Chapel Hill religious studies professor Carl Ernst, hours after a federal court refused to ban the sessions that began Monday.
"The media attention probably got the students to read more seriously than they would have otherwise."
The Virginia-based Family Policy Network and three unidentified UNC freshmen one an evangelical Christian, one Roman Catholic and one Jewish filed a lawsuit last month contending the assignment was unconstitutional.
A federal court in Greensboro refused last week to bar the students from reading and discussing the book, and a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond did the same Monday.
"I never really knew what the Koran was or what it said before this. Now I feel like I have a better understanding of where my Muslim friends are coming from," said Chip Cook, 18.
Mr. Cook participated in the session that including playing a CD that accompanies the book, "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," listening to readings of the texts sung or chanted in Arabic by Muslims from different parts of the world.
UNC Chancellor James Moeser said the dispute has achieved the whole purpose of the assignment "to get students talking to each other about something other than basketball, football and sex."
The university agreed to permit students who did not want to read the book to skip the sessions and write an essay explaining why. All but two of the students in Mr. Ernst's classroom had read it.
Opponents of the assignment said it promotes Islam over other religions.
"This country should be appalled," said Gary Birdsong, of Knightdale, who does ministry work on several campuses across North Carolina. "This country was founded on Christianity, not on the Koran. If they can have the Koran be mandatory, why not the Bible, why not other religious books?"
Mr. Ernst said he recommended the book written by a religion professor Michael Sells in the hope that it would teach about a religion that puzzles many Americans.

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