CHICAGO (AFP) — Police have stepped up patrols of an elementary school in Minnesota after it received threats in the wake of accusations that it was using public funds to teach Islam.
The threats came after a local columnist wrote that the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a suburban Minneapolis charter school run by an Islamic charity, appeared to be violating a ban on teaching religion in public schools.
Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations with public funds.
While many have been started by religious groups, they are bound to US rules that public schools must accommodate the religious needs of their students but are not allowed to promote religious views or lead prayer services.
The brewing controversy came to head in recent days when a substitute teacher said she saw students "corralled" into involuntary prayer services, and a local television station criticized the school for failing to fly a US flag.
The story got picked up on anti-Muslim websites and the school started getting threatening calls and e-mails, including threats to burn it down and "destroy" its students and leaders.
"These vile and vicious attacks on us have resulted in death threats against my students, myself and my family," Asad Zaman, executive director of the academy, told AFP Wednesday.
Tarek ibn Ziyad is run by the charity Islamic Relief USA and specializes in teaching Arabic language and culture in addition to standard public grade school subjects.
The majority of the students are Muslim and the school offers regular prayer services and after-school Islamic instruction, but officials say they are careful to follow state guidelines.
Zaman scoffs at the idea that the school is secretly Islamic or that students are forced to attend prayer services, noting that it is inspected regularly by the state Department of Education and has hosted a number of reporters and high-profile politicians.
"We do not teach religion. We do not favor any religion," he said in a telephone interview.
"We specialize in dramatic turnarounds. More than 90 percent of our students are in poverty and we outperform schools in the (wealthy) suburbs."
But the columnist who sparked the controversy says that while the reports of threats are "repellant" they should not "distract attraction from the central issue here, and that is, whether this publicly-financed school is skirting or breaking the law that all others must observe when it comes to religious endorsement."
"If this were a bunch of Baptists or Catholics with the kids being led to the rosary on Mondays through Thursday and led to Mass on Fridays there wouldn't be any question that this is crossing the line," said Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten.
Kersten is also concerned that the school, which has a long waiting list and has recently expanded to a second campus, will prevent the assimilation of the area's growing population of new Muslim immigrants.
"If you have a very large immigrant Muslim population being educated at taxpayer expenses in a separate system where Arabic is mandatory and there's an emphasis on the culture of the so-called Eastern world, it seems to me you are setting up a very problematic situation," she told AFP.
The Minnesota Department of Education said it goes to "great lengths" to ensure that charter schools understand they must be "non-sectarian" in nature while also accommodating the religious beliefs of students.
"We take seriously the concerns raised regarding Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy and are conducting an appropriate review," Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said in a statement.
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