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.

Emergency meeting in the House of Commons

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House of Commons Photo by Márcio Cabral de Moura

Originally published Jan. 31, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/emergency-meeting-at-the-house-of-commons/

UPDATE, Jan 31, 2017, 11:05 pm AST

At the emergency meeting, NDP MP of Vancouver East Jenny Kwan once again asked for an action plan in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s executive order. Kwan recommended lifting the cap on privately sponsored refugees, fast-tracking refugees that have already been screened in the U.S. and suspend the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement.
Both Kwan and federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair called Trump’s immigration policy “racist”.
Liberal Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen, defended his party’s current immigration plan saying it was already at a historic high. He said there was no plan to increase the 2017 immigration cap which is set at 40,000 refugees.
Hussen also reaffirmed that the Canadian government has received word from Washington that Canadians with dual citizenship will be allowed in the United States.
He also pointed to a recent Reuters article (https://ca.news.yahoo.com/exclusive-trump-administration-allow-872-refugees-u-week-235509341.html) that reports that the Trump administration will allow 872 refugees into the country. “It suggest that the situation continues to evolve and we will continue to assess the impacts of that,” says Hussen.
On the question of the Safe Third Country Agreement, Hussen says that “the conditions of that agreement continue to be met.”
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Members of Parliament are sparring over what controversial new American travel restrictions should mean for Canadian policy, in an emergency debate on Tuesday in the House of Commons.

On Friday night, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel to the United States for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Some Haligonians want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to speak up against the ban.

The executive order has drawn a lot of criticism in the U.S., giving rise to multiple protests at airports across the country.

The international community has also been vocal with many foreign leaders openly condemning the travel ban.

Canada’s response so far has been more subdued. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted this Saturday afternoon

Vancouver East’s MP Jenny Kwan has been critical of Trudeau’s response and, in a conference today, said that “words are not enough.”

She is the one who requested the emergency meeting. Kwan says that the meeting will hopefully push the federal government to be more proactive and clarify what the travel ban means for Canadian citizens.

One of the issues that will be debated tonight is the Safe Third Country Agreement. It has been in effect since 2004, and prevents refugees in the U.S from asking for asylum in Canada.

Lee Cohen, a long time immigration lawyer in Halifax, thinks the executive order issued Friday is “outrageous, dangerous and extremely worrisome.”

Cohen has a lot of experience helping clients immigrate to Canada and is getting calls from Americans trying to renounce their U.S. citizenship.

He says that Canada should do everything it can to help anyone trying to get asylum here.

“In this current time of crisis, when genuine refuges who are currently in the United States and fearing that they may be removed from the States, they absolutely should have access to Canada and to have access to Canada unrestricted,” he says. “The safe third country rule must go.”

“The purpose of the rule is to discourage people from asylum shopping and to seek asylum in the country they are located, if it’s a safe country,” says Cohen.

Since Sunday, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has been asking Canadians to contact their member of parliament to push Canada to act on the U.S. travel ban and abolish the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Many Canadians took them up on that opportunity and Allison Lindsay is one of them. She hopes others in Halifax will do the same.

“I think it’s a great thing to get out and to rally and to stand together with communities,” she says. “But unless you put (on) that pressure and let those people that represent you know what your thoughts are, then they can’t speak for you.”

Lindsay says that she likes the initial response from Trudeau and the federal government, but hopes Canada will be more proactive and condemn Trump’s executive order.

“I hope to continue to see Canada and especially Justin Trudeau really take a hard stand against this, not be bullied and continue to provide shelter and refuge to those who need it,” she says.

The debate will take place at 8:30 p.m. Atlantic time. It can be viewed on C-PAC and on the web at: http://www.cpac.ca/en/.