Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

RISING FROM THE FIRE

Hamilton’s religious leaders unite to combat hatred

SUSAN MCCLELLAND October 22 2001
Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

RISING FROM THE FIRE

Hamilton’s religious leaders unite to combat hatred

SUSAN MCCLELLAND October 22 2001

RISING FROM THE FIRE

Hamilton’s religious leaders unite to combat hatred

SUSAN MCCLELLAND

Priya Sharma recounts a Hindu teaching. “A temple isn’t just the building it is located in,” says the 16-year-old Hamilton student. “You can find God anywhere.” It is a lesson that Priya has come to appreciate in recent weeks. On Sept. 15, the Hindu temple that she has attended since she was a baby was destroyed by racists who, police say, set fire to the building thinking it was a mosque. Temple officials estimate it will take about a year to rebuild the facility, so for the next few weeks, the Hindu congregation, led by Pandit Hari Bhajan Sharma (no relation), will hold its Sunday worship at a hall owned by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order. After that, it will move into a Mormon church. “It was very different,” says Priya Sharma of the first Sunday she spent at the Knights’ hall. “The walls are lined with pictures of Jesus and the Pope. It made me more resolute to remember my faith and rebuild our temple.”

Since the terrorist events of Sept. 11, acts of violence against visible minorities have been reported all over North America.

Nowhere in Canada, however, have hate crimes been more prevalent than in multicultural Hamilton. On the same night that the temple was destroyed, racists threw beer bottles at the front lobby doors and screamed obscenities at Muslims leaving the city’s largest mosque, the Hamilton Mosque.

And a man left a disturbing message on the mosque’s answering machine saying that in retaliation for the World Trade Center attacks, he was going to rape five-year-old Muslim children. No arrests had been made by late last week.

The backlash appalled members of all faiths. “The crimes are based on skin colour and ignorance,” says Narendar Passi, president of the Hindu Samaj of Hamilton and region. “We may live in a multicultural society, but many people know nothing about their neighbours.” Leaders of all of Hamilton’s religious groups are now standing together against intolerance and in support for one another. They commissioned a local graphic artist to design a poster showing the symbols of 12 area religions with the slogan ‘An attack on one is an attack on us all”— the same language used by NATO in response to the attacks on the United States. Various community and religious groups are also fund-raising to rebuild the desecrated temple. And since Sept. 11, the city’s senior Muslim official, Imam Yahya Fadlalla, has repeatedly and publicly condemned the terrorist assaults on the U.S. He invited people of all faiths, including Jews, to visit his mosque, and has spoken to the congregations at three local Christian churches.

Not everyone is backing the unity of religious leaders, though. Irwin Zeplowitz, rabbi of the Jewish Temple Anshe Sholom, says he has heard rumblings against his stand in support of Muslims. But he persists. “Change in the end won’t come about because of military action,” he explains. “It will come by us accepting each other and by religions dealing with the fringe elements within their faiths.” One fuel of racism, he contends, is the belief some have that their particular God and way of worship is the only way. That leads to religious fundamentalism and extremism, and it can happen in any monotheistic religion. When an aggressive political agenda is backed by religious fanaticism, he adds, “it is a deadly problem.”

For some, it’s tough to simply forgive and forget. In fact, given the task ahead of him, Hamilton Hindu temple’s past chairman of the board, Mani Subramanian, says it’s easier to become angry at what the racists did. The interior of the temple was designed and built by skilled artisans from India, and the building’s insurance is not adequate to cover the replacement costs of that intricate work. On top of the settlement, the congregation needs to raise at least $250,000 to rebuild the facility. But Subramanian also recalls the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu activist who said: “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.” With that faith, a temple will surely rise.