Interfaith Harmony Week in times of great turmoil

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Interfaith Harmony Week at the Hindu temple Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Jan. 30, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/interfaith-harmony-week-in-times-of-great-turmoil/

After a recent executive order by U.S. president Donald Trump aimed at banning immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries — and in light of a shooting at a Quebec city mosque on Sunday night — Halifax is hosting an event that stands in stark contrast.

The Interfaith Harmony Week promotes unity through the appreciation of differences. The organizers invite all Haligonians to visit different places of worship and get to know the culture and communities that gather there.

“We walk by these places, but this provides an opportunity as they are prepared to receive guests,” says Clement Mehlman, chaplain at Dalhousie University and one of the organizers in Halifax.

As part of the Interfaith Harmony Week, the cities participating are also competing with each other. This year’s event comes one year after Halifax won third place among hundreds of other cities across the world.

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A meal is served after the event at the Hindu temple Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

The week started yesterday and one of the first events was held at the Hindu temple. Guests and regulars participated in the Sunday Puja and Prasad. The Prasad, a meal that serves as a religious offering, was served after the Puja and offered to everyone.

Interfaith Harmony Week was created by King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2010 and is sponsored by the United Nations. One of the event’s goals is to build stronger bonds between all people of faiths and recognize the common values that are shared by believers and non-believers.

“It is very important to have a mutual understanding that all faith groups lead to the same goal of human evolution and spiritual fulfilment, says Sastry Vankamamidi, a priest at the Hindu temple. “Whatever be the god you believe in, you have to practise your religion freely and obtain the goals set in our particular faith.”

As part of the Interfaith Harmony Week, more than 50 people have signed up to participate in the engagement program. All those participating will go to at least three events and meet up after the week is done to talk about their experience. They will carry passports that are signed at every event they attend and are encouraged to immerse themselves as much as possible in the different faith communities they visit.

Darlene Burton is a teacher at the Nova Scotia Community College and is one of those participants. She says she is attending this year after getting rave reviews from one of her students.

“We are celebrating diversity, but really you notice that ‘gee, we are not that different,’” she says.

This year’s Interfaith Harmony Week coincides with harsh immigration bans being implemented in the United States. Melhman says that President Donald Trump was in the back of many people’s minds this year.

“How do we get to the point where we love difference and are not threaten by it?,” Melhman says that the Interfaith Harmony Week is a push in that direction.

That is one of the reasons why the engagement program exists and why Burton is participating.

“With so much discussion and talk about people being more nationalistic and close cultures, one good way to oppose that is to embrace other cultures and demonstrate it through events like this,” says Burton.

A show of solidarity at a Halifax mosque

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Two men praying at Ummah Masjid in Halifax  Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Feb. 3, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/a-show-of-solidarity-at-a-halifax-mosque/

“You can always find something bright even in the darkest of times.”

That was part of Moataz Soliman’s Jummah Khutbah, Friday prayer, at the Ummah Mosque and Community Centre.

While giving his Khutbah, or sermon, a larger crowd than usual was sitting in front of him. Behind the regulars, hundreds of “neighbours” were listening to him as well.

“What good thing can come out of such a sad situation?” asks Soliman. “This struggle strengthens the good people. Strengthens what is good. Brings about many good things in many people — and one of the things I see in front of my eyes now is our neighbours sitting with us.”

There were always going to be strangers at this event. The Jummah Khutbah is one of many events in the Interfaith Harmony Week. Interfaith Harmony Week is an U.N. sponsored event that promotes communication and understanding between faiths in one municipality.

No one last week, however, could have predicted the size of the crowd that came to participate on Friday.

In response to the terrorist attack on a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, hundreds of people gathered at the mosque on Friday and, in a show of solidarity, formed a human circle around it by holding hands together and standing outside the building.

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People holding hands around Ummah Mosque in Halifax Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

“When we are surrounding the mosque facing out, we are protecting the sanctity of the sanctuary inside,” says Rev. Norm Horofker. “We respect, honour and encourage those in prayer and their right to do that in peace.”

Horofker is the minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax and one of the organizers of this gathering. “I just started the ball rolling on social media and it took off,” he says.

Kim MacAuley is one of the key coordinators of Interfaith Harmony Halifax and was also at the mosque.

She says that tragedies like the one in that happened in Quebec City shows how important it is to have communication and trust between all communities in Halifax.

“What we need to do is really be proactive so to build the right conditions for peace, harmony and goodwill. That’s what Interfaith Harmony Week is all about,” says MacAuley.

“The support we received today and the previous days is really heartwarming. I cannot describe it in words. It’s beautiful,” says Soliman.

He says people don’t need special events to come and visit, however.

“The mosque is always open. We don’t even need a program,” says Soliman. “The doors are always open and anyone can listen and ask questions.”