Wheaton College professor on leave after Islam comments

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CHICAGO (AP) -- A professor at a suburban Chicago Christian college who is wearing a headscarf to demonstrate solidarity with Muslims has been placed on administrative leave after making statements about the faiths' similarities that the college said conflicted with its "distinctively evangelical" identity.

Larycia Hawkins, who is a Christian and an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, a private evangelical school west of Chicago, was put on leave Tuesday. In recent days, she began wearing a hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, to counter what she called the "vitriolic" rhetoric against Muslims in recent weeks.

Wheaton College students, who last week raised concerns of their own about comments Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. made in the aftermath of the California shooting, took to social media to defend Hawkins and call for her to be reinstated.

Hawkins, a tenured faculty member, explained her decision to wear a headscarf throughout the Advent period preceding Christmas in a video interview with the Chicago Tribune on Sunday.

"This project began out of a sense of wanting to model for my students what actual solidarity looks like as opposed to theoretical," she said.

With fears of terrorism simmering and Donald Trump calling for Muslims to be blocked from entering the United States, many American Muslims are on edge. Hawkins said in the Tribune interview that she felt it was important to "show solidarity with Muslims in the United States at this very contentious time where rhetoric is vitriolic."

She did not respond to phone and email messages from The Associated Press seeking comment Wednesday.

The college said in a statement Tuesday that it placed her on leave because of statements she made on social media about similarities between Islam and Christianity.

"In response to significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements that Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Larycia Hawkins has made about the relationship of Christianity to Islam, Wheaton College has placed her on administrative leave, pending the full review to which she is entitled as a tenured faculty member," the statement read.

A college spokeswoman did not return messages seeking more information about what precisely led to the decision.

Its written statement said the college had "no stated position" on the wearing of headscarves as a gesture of care and concern. But it also said that "overtures of Christian friendship must be enacted with theological clarity as well as compassion."

In her interview with the Tribune, Hawkins said she found similarities between the faiths.

"Our religions both believe in peace, and ... both religions believe that people are created in the image of the divine," she said.