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August 30, 2011

Prayers at schools

Haroon Siddiqui

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The weekly Muslim prayer at a Toronto public school thats said to constitute an imminent threat to Canadian secularism has been going on for 11 years, with nary a complaint.

So, why the sudden fuss? Because a marginal Hindu group that’s virulently anti-Muslim made an issue of it. And the media fell for it in a way we never would have for anti-Semites and other hate-mongers.

The service at a Flemingdon Park school is not all that unique. The noon-hour Friday congregational prayers, Jum’a, are routinely held in thousands of schools, colleges, universities and businesses across Canada, including some bank towers in downtown Toronto.

Not surprising, given that the Muslim sabbath falls on a working day, not Saturday and Sunday as it does for Jews and Christians.

Valley Park School, at Don Mills and Overlea, is Canada’s largest middle school. Of its 1,200 students, 80 per cent are Muslims.

On Fridays, many were trekking two kilometres to the nearest mosque. To ease their burden in the fasting month of Ramadan, Jum’a was started in the school in 2000. For the rest of the year, however, they were still going to the mosque for two hours. Some were not coming back at all. So three years ago, principal Nick Stefanoff regularized Jum’a in the school.

It’s held after lunch when the cafeteria is vacant. Students and volunteer parents remove the chairs and tables to spread sheets for the 30-minute service, following which they rearrange the furniture and the students return to class.

Attendance is voluntary. A third of the Muslim students come. That’s about the same level of attendance as Muslims across Canada going to Jum’a. (In nations where Friday is a holiday, the turnout may be higher).

The school does not pay a penny. No staff is assigned. There’s no interference with classes, let alone the curriculum.

“It was I who initiated this with the community, not the other way around,” says Stefanoff. “We’re doing something that’s working. This has provided more instructional time. This is a good news story.”

None of this matters to Canadian Hindu Advocacy. It is sliming the Toronto District School Board for being “thoroughly infected with Islamist sympathies.”

In fact, the board is only doing what it must under the law — accommodate different religious practices. For example:

 • Staff members belonging to First Nations, Métis and Inuit need not get up for “God Save the Queen.”

 • Jehovah’s Witness students may also sit through, or be excused from class, during “O Canada.” They may not don Halloween costumes.

 • Seventh Day Adventists and Jewish students are excused for school-related activities on Saturday.

 • In Jewish neighbourhoods, schools reschedule tests, assignments and exams for the Jewish High Holidays.

 • Schools hold Christmas/Winter concerts to mark Christmas, often along with Hanukkah and the Hindu Diwali with menorahs and lamps.

 • Even in the United States, where separation of church and state is religion, such adjustments are common. In Dearborn, Mich., a champion school football team is practising at midnight this Ramadan to let its majority Muslim players fast during the day and attend evening prayers.

At Valley Park, parents Ali Baig and wife Shamiza have been active in the parent-teacher council. In fact, they helped start the Jum’a initially and were happy at how well it worked out. To them, “the sudden media controversy over it came as a complete surprise.”

They and other Muslims are also helping with a $1.5 million school project to develop soccer and cricket fields, a baseball diamond and a landscaped community park extending to the Don River. With an amphitheatre, picnic tables and vegetable gardens, the area would serve the two neighbourhoods the school draws students from.

Thorncliffe Park is the No. 1 destination for new immigrants from South Asia. It has 34,000 residents in 34 highrises on 3.5 square kilometres. Flemingdon Park has 22,000 people in highrises on less land. Built for cars in the 1950s, the two are becoming pedestrian communities, as people walk to shops, services and schools. The project would help this transformation. The mosque donated $10,000.

This is exemplary collaboration between teachers and parents, and the school and its neighbours.

Disparate groups are working together — trustee Gerri Gershon, Councillor John Parker, MPP Kathleen Wynne, Flemingdon Neighbourhood Services, the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office and the local Kiwanis Club.

These folks deserve bouquets, not the brickbats being thrown at them by bigots who don’t live in the area — outside agitators disturbing the local peace.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.

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