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Divine Intervention

The Miraculous Journey of Abdullah Antepli
Although Islamic clergy are becoming more commonplace on college campuses, Abdullah Antepli remains among a handful who serve as full-time chaplains in American higher education.


“Even though my family had everything we needed materially, I felt something was not right. Islam, with its perfect connection of daily prayers leading to God—and verifying that relationship by loving others—closed that gap.”

Antepli was careful to pray mostly at neighborhood mosques, although he feared that a neighbor would recognize him and might tell his parents. He performed his early morning prayers as quietly as possible behind the closed door of his bedroom.

One morning, his mother awoke to sounds coming from his room. When she discovered him praying on his bedroom carpet, she screamed.

“It was so traumatic … as if she had caught me using drugs,” says Antepli. “I was devastated and disappointed, but I knew what I was doing was not wrong. I was caught between a rock and a hard place—between the love and respect of my parents and my faith. My parents were not bad people. They reacted out of compassion, because they believed what the society said—that religion was an ugly and bad thing. Looking back on it now, I realize my family was a victim of their own misperceptions about Islam and religion. And they failed to realize how much fun I was having with this business of religion.”

By the time he entered high school, the conflict between him and his parents led them to issue an ultimatum: abandon Islam or move out of their home.

Antepli joined a madrasah, an Islamic school where boys of all ages lived and studied in preparation to become religious leaders.

It was a difficult three years for Antepli. He had no financial support from his parents or other relatives, who shared the same anti-religious views. He earned scholarships from the school, which was mandated to help orphans and other needy children, and worked at odd jobs after school and on weekends. During his last few months of high school, he learned that his father was dying. “His death brought us together, and I was able to reconcile with the rest of my family gradually afterward,” he says. “Now my family has grown to respect what I do.”

Although Antepli resisted becoming an imam in an atmosphere where religion is rigidly controlled by the government, his spiritual mentor convinced him that his resistance, like that of reluctant prophets in both the Bible and the Quran, was a sign from God. But he knew in his heart that he would have to leave Turkey to experience fully God’s diversity.

After earning his degree and completing imam training in 1996, Antepli wanted to continue working for social justice, a passion he had discovered during college. He spent the next eight years in Southeast Asia with faith-based NGOs building orphanages and helping to rescue children trapped in the sex trade. Those efforts were as gratifying as they were heartbreaking.

“I was helping make a difference in the lives of thousands of children,” says Antepli, whose faith is grounded in the concept of service. “Nothing fulfills me more than alleviating human suffering—enabling people to fulfill their dreams and potential in life. Just like in Southeast Asia, I do that at Duke on a daily basis.”

Among the children Antepli helped in Burma was Maung Kyi, a 6-year-old boy whose parents had sold two older sons into slavery.

“I gave the parents $75, and then gifts of food, sugar, and rice, to keep them from selling him,” says Antepli, who stayed in touch with the family, and was eventually able to help Maung attend school. 

Recently, Antepli was surprised by a phone call from Australia that brought him to tears. Maung had tracked down his mentor to share good news: he had been accepted to medical school in Sydney. 

In what Antepli described as another divine intervention, the Burmese government closed access to NGOs for six months in 1999. The break provided him an opportunity to travel to the United States for graduate study at the University of Pittsburgh. Three days after his arrival, Antepli was asked to volunteer as a part-time Muslim chaplain there and at nearby Carnegie Mellon University.

“The only ‘chaplain’ I had ever heard of was Charlie Chaplin,” says Antepli with a wry smile. Soon he was convinced that chaplaincy was his life’s work. It was not just chaplaincy that appealed to him, but the secular and pluralistic nature of American society.

“There was an acknowledgment that God created everybody differently,” Antepli says. “You were welcomed in society and would not be discriminated against,