Chapel Hill, N.C., Aug. 20--(AP) Matthew Dale admits he initially found his first assignment as a student at the University of North Carolina a bit hard to stomach. The school had asked all 4,200 incoming freshmen and transfer students to read a book about Islam's holy text and be prepared to discuss it during orientation week. "After the terrorist attacks, I was so angry that I really didn't care to learn anything about Muslims," explained Dale, 18.

Dale said he overcame his opposition and ended up enjoying the assignment, but the same could not be said about the conservative Family Policy Netowrk. The Christian group had asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to stop the discussions of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" - a request that was denied just hours before the sessions were to start Monday.

The summer reading program and the ensuing court battle made for an unusual orientation at UNC. Journalists squeezed into rooms with students on Monday to cover the discussions, which suddenly became national news.

UNC-Chapel Hill religious studies professor Carl Ernst said he recommended the book--written by Haverford College religion professor Michael Sells--in the hope that it would teach new students about a religion that puzzles many Americans.

Conservatives say the assignment promotes Islam, the religion practiced by the Sept. 11 terrorists. "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 Quran. ... If they can have the Quran be mandatory, why not the Bible, why not other religious books?"

The 16 students in Ernst's discussion group talked about afterlife, Judgment Day and how passages from the Quran relate to Christianity and religions more familiar to the students. They also played a CD that accompanies the book, listening to readings of the texts sung or chanted in Arabic by Muslims from different parts of the world.

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 Ernst's classroom had read it. "I never really knew what the Quran 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.

Ernst said he had no regrets about his recommendation. "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," he said. "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 appeals court in Richmond, Va., did the same Monday morning. Terry Moffitt, board chairman for the Family Policy Network, said the group had no plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Officials said participation in the discussion groups was not graded and roll was not taken, which is why the university had no idea how many people took part. In previous years, about 50 percent to 60 percent of new students have participated, school officials said. 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."

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