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Interfaith Programs

Montreal Interfaith Forum: Bridging the Secular State and Religiously Inclusive Society

Montreal, Canada – Is There a Conflict Between a Secular State and Religiously Inclusive Society?” was the topic of a UPF forum in Montreal on Nov. 21, 2013. Controversial legislation being proposed in Quebec would prohibit government employees working in education and medical institutions from wearing religious symbols, and UPF speakers asserted that the paradigm of a family can offer an inclusive model for a secular state and a religiously pluralistic society.

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Concerned citizens, religious and community leaders and academics gathered to discuss proposed legislation that would prohibit the wearing of religious symbols by people employed by the government in educational and medical institutions. The population is split along ethnic and religious lines, causing intense debate throughout Canada. Emphasis was placed on not only listening to varying views but also discussing the extent to which the state should legislate criteria for social values.

Rev. James Pratt an Anglican priest in Montreal with a background in law, used the backdrop of the history of the Anglican church as it adapted to various cultures throughout the period of colonialism to explain the need for dialogue and understanding among the communities. (See text.)

Ms. Samaa Elibyari host of Radio Caravan and member of the Council of the Canadian Muslim women, shared some very practical examples from her personal life as an immigrant from Egypt married to a man of Irish and Scottish descent. She addressed the thorny issues presented by recent legislature proposed by the minority Quebec government. (See text)

Mr. Kaz Masciotra, a political science student in his final year at McGill University, explained the historical context of a secular society as being a primarily Western creation. He went on to suggest that although the state may attempt to be religiously neutral it is not necessarily culturally neutral and come into conflict with religious bodies. In his view, common ground needs to be reached by agreeing on what is "sacred" not only in the religious sphere but in cultural and other areas as well. This would set the stage for fruitful dialogue.

Imam Salam Elmenyawi, Chair of Muslim Council of Montreal and university chaplain, has been at the forefront of the issue in Montreal as one of the most prominent Muslim religious leaders addressing the issue. He emphasized that we should continue to dialogue and find ways to cut through the mis-information provided by the popular press. He suggested that the issues faced by minority communities would eventually affect the more established communities as well.

A variety of views were expressed in the question and answer session moderated by Franco Famularo, Secretary General of UPF-Canada. Views from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and secularists with a concern for human rights were expressed. It was agreed to continue efforts to educate for peace. As Ambassadors for Peace all are encouraged to steer the current unease into positive action that promotes harmony and goodness in all sectors of society.

Canada, Quebec and Montreal in particular have a tradition of accepting the other, of accepting differences. This goes back to the original accommodation of its two founding European cultures. Historically, one could say that the founding parents of Canada, the French and the English, by agreeing to get along, work together and cooperate, made multiculturalism possible in the position of mature children. It is not simply that a lot of diverse cultures live in Canada but that they have the possibility of all finding their place in a nation whose essential founding principle was to accept as equal a group that was different.

Modern life is competitive. Sometimes members of more established groups are threatened and fall back on their cultural origins in reaction. Multiculturalism asserts the value of variety and often runs the risk of alienating cultural groups. Most immigrants and representatives of cultural communities come from ancient cultures that have a lot of wisdom to offer Canada. Must there be conflict between a secular state and a religiously inclusive and pluralistic society?

Surely we can do better than mere tolerance of new immigrants and racial minorities. A family integrates diversity and sees beyond the differences to our common humanity, lowering the barriers that separate us.

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