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Virginia school district shut after Arabic assignment prompts backlash

A Virginia school district had to cancel all classes after being flooded with angry messages over a lesson that involved copying a Muslim statement of faith in Arabic. The incident affected more than 10,000 students.

A teacher at a Virginia high school sparked an uproar that led officials to temporarily shut down the entire school district, keeping all 10,000 of the county's students at home. Cheryl LaPorte had given a class at Riverheads High School in Staunton the assignment of writing the Shahada, a profession of faith recited by Muslims, including in their daily prayers.

The Shahada is spread across the Muslim world in religious imagery, featured prominently in mosques and in religious art, but also features on the flags of jihadist groups such as the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS).

But there was a sudden uproar in the rural community when news about the homework task spread on social media. Some parents accused LaPorte of trying to indoctrinate students with Islam.

A lesson in artistry

School officials said the aim of the lesson was to illustrate the complexity of the written Arabic language, not to promote any religious system. The teacher's lesson was reportedly drawn from instructional material that also included Judeo-Christian assignments.

"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.

Augusta County Sheriff Randall D. Fisher meanwhile said the school district received tens of thousands of emails and Facebook posts, some of which were "threatening and very profane in nature." Fisher said he dedicated an investigator to comb through the messages as a precaution though no specific threats had been made. Some demanded the teacher be fired.

The incident underlined simmering anti-Islamic attitudes surfacing across the United States after the December 2 massacre in San Bernardino, California, when a married Muslim couple opened fire at a social services center, killing 14. It was later established that they had been inspired by IS.

Cheryl LaPorte said that she had experienced support from the majority of her colleagues. "All I want now is time for our community to heal," she told the Reuters news agency.

ss/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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