Shaila Carter of Islamic Relief Canada and co-chair of the Canadian Interfaith Convention addresses the press conference held by the CIC, June 18, 2024. Photo courtesy the Canadian Council of Churches

Interfaith group calls for protection of places of worship

  • June 24, 2024

A deepening polarization in Canadian society and increased vandalism against houses of worship has led to an interfaith call for the federal government to provide more robust protection of religious institutions.

At a June 18 news conference on Parliament Hill, the Canadian Interfaith Conversation (CIC), an alliance of faith communities working to combat hate based on religious identity, issued an urgent call to action for the protection of all faith groups from such attacks.

Highlighting the role of religious communities in building bridges, Aakash Maharaj, ambassador-at-large of the Ottawa-based Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption and member of the executive council of CIC, said: “Faith communities share a deep reverence for and commitment to the dignity of every human being and for the sacredness of humanity and creation. Hate ignores and undermines that dignity and sacredness, and has no place in Canada.”

“It (attacks against religious communities) is not only a Jewish community problem,” said Richard Marceau of the Centre for Jewish and Israeli Affairs. “All other faith institutions deserve as much protection.”

Shaila Carter, co-chair of CIC and Interfaith Specialist at Islamic Relief Canada, said Canada should be a safe environment for people to practice their faith freely and happily.

“As the daughter of (Bangladeshi) immigrants I am here to build bridges between people, to combat hate in solidarity with other faiths and to promote love. As women, we should be able to wear our head scarves if we choose to.”

The CIC statement, signed by 60 representatives of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i communities, outlined four recommendations for the government of Canada. In addition to stepping up security measures for all religious institutions including houses of worship, schools, daycare centres, community centres and cemeteries, it called on the government to:

· support Canadian interfaith efforts to provide non-sectarian medical and humanitarian aid to victims, especially child victims, of international conflicts through reputable and trustworthy organizations as a means of advancing peace-building efforts abroad and social solidarity in Canada;

· introduce a comprehensive strategy to foster understanding about online hate based on religious identity; and

· ensure, in collaboration with other levels of government, that hate crime units are informed about hate based on religious identity in every law enforcement service, so that targeted groups can feel safe, heard and respected.

Each of these appeals was based on current needs that have reached a level of unprecedented urgency in Canada and around the world.

The need for extra protection for houses of worship has been heightened by domestic tensions and international conflicts. Christian churches have been under attack since the alleged discovery in May 2021 of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. No bodies have been uncovered in Kamloops or on other First Nations since these reports originated. Yet the CBC reported that 33 churches have been burned to the ground since then and close to 70 more have been vandalized in some way.

And since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, police forces in major Canadian cities have reported a dramatic surge in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes, including shots fired at Jewish schools and synagogues.

In a March 5 article, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, noted the nationwide epidemic of arsons and vandalism against Christian churches, “and the silence from some political and ideological groups is deafening.”

The author of the article, Stuart Parker notes that Canadians, including Liberal and NDP MPs, have been extremely reluctant to condemn the crimes.

“And that’s especially tragic since many of the targeted churches served non-white parishes. The first two churches burned in June 2021 served First Nations communities in B.C., and since then, Filipino, Copts and other multicultural Christian communities have seen their places of worship charred or defaced,” he wrote.

Bruce Clemenger of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said his organization is conflicted about the idea of creating “bubble zones,” or spaces around houses of worship where it would be illegal to hold protests. He said the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is looking for a balance between free expression, which includes the right to protest peacefully and the need to protect vulnerable minorities from being attacked in their places of worship.

“There are provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada, and even in municipal bylaws, that are not being adequately used,” Clemenger said.

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