A Wichita, Kansas minister came forward to debunk the conservative claim that Muslims were attempting a "takeover" of the campus church at Wichita State University, the Wichita Eagle reported.
"Five, six or seven of us all kind of had that idea within about the same six- to eight-month time frame three years ago," Rev. Christopher Eshelman said of the decision to remove the pews from the Grace Chapel. "I certainly suggested it, advocated for it. I don't know that I'm the only one that suggested it, so I'm not trying to say it was all my idea, but I was certainly one of the people who said, 'What if we did this?'"
The pews were removed as part of an effort to make the church more accessible to members of various faiths. The move was supported by Eshelman -- who chairs the board overseeing the chapel and is a former campus minister for the university -- as well as former student body president Matt Conklin and his successor, Joseph Shepard. All three men identify themselves as Christian.
"The major push was from Christians," said Chandler Williams, a graduate student who was part of a committee in 2013 that investigated how to make better use of the facility. "The Muslims were not as involved in the discussions as the Christians."
But according to the Eagle, complaints began flooding in after a school donor and alumnus, Jean Ann Cusick, complained online that "the Muslims are ecstatic" about the change.
The campus chapter of ACT for America, a group that says its mission includes "defeating terrorism," also denounced the changes.
"I'm here to stand up for Jesus Christ," chapter leader Lisa Ritchie said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable going into a synagogue to pray, or a temple or a mosque. But it’s the way of the world now that we’ve lumped 'religion' into 'interfaith.'"
Shepard, who is also a minister, said he was the target of hate mail sent to his private student email account.
"YOU CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN? A MINISTER? How disgusting," one message reportedly stated. "You don't have a right to call yourself a Christian. how can you defend a group that has much hatred towards your own."
There are currently around 1,000 Muslim students at the university, many of whom pay higher tuition because they are from other countries. Taben Azad, who leads the school's Muslim Students Association, said Cusick rejected his attempt to discuss the matter online. Instead, he reposted her statements on his own Facebook page alongside a response.
"Instead of criticizing and targeting 'the Muslims,' why can't we seek common ground and find an option that works for us all?" he wrote. "As a Muslim, I am more than willing to collaborate on Interfaith Dialogue, but can we stop with the #Hatespeech?"