In light of the recent church bombing in Cairo and right-wing rioters burning down a mosque in Athens, I still say Canada (despite ‘reasonable accommodation’ dog and pony shows, and trumped-up charges laid against radicalized teenagers) is — or could be with a few adjustments — a global example of interfaith harmony.
While our racism/sectarianism may be somewhat polite and repressed, we’re not so far from being a kinder, gentler (and colder) Andalusia.
I still think that Canada — where Muslims fleeing xenophobia in Europe or persecuted Christians fleeing the Middle East are just as likely as not to rub shoulders on the Yonge street line (or on the skytrain to Surrey) — has enough space and enough ‘newness’ about it to contain much of the world.
A recent experience springs to mind. On Christmas Eve, I went to mass at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver (where two sets of Anglican great grandparents were married circa 1908) with my Mum, whose Lebanese Greek Orthodox grandparents fled Ottoman oppression 100 years ago for a new life in Canada. (They settled in Prince Rupert and their son was adopted by a Haida chief. There was no Arabic church then, so they all became Anglicans -sharing church pews with a Nisga’a chief and even with a Jewish furrier. In those days, rubbing shoulders with Anglicans was the way to gain acceptance in the local business community.)
We sort of stood out in the well…how shall I put it…rather monochromatic crowd — that is until an Iranian women in hijab and her husband walked in, sat a few feet in front of us — and leaned back and gave us a huge smile of recognition.
After mass, the Iranian woman introduced me to her extended family, her son and daughter — both doctors — and various cousins and their spouses. They were thrilled that I spoke a few words of farsi — and after I explained my ancestral Middle Eastern connection, the lady took my hand, kissed me on the cheek and said ‘you ….like my sister,” Then she said in somewhat halting but sincere English. “I am so happy about Jesus. Because I am Muslim and so is he.”
I know I said — “arey” (yes) — ‘same family’ — thinking of the ancestral line of the prophets, the veneration of Jesus in Islam, and also of my own Lebanese family and their Muslim cousins.
Then her husband — also a doctor — explained to me about the ‘imam mahdi’ — a concept I was quite familiar with after years of reporting from the Muslim world. The imam mahdi is a kind of Muslim ‘second coming’ — the idea that a great Redeemer (in Shi’ah Islam he is often referred to as the 12th imam) will come alongside Jesus and together they will rid the world of wrongdoing, injustice and tyranny. Just as I was thinking that they’d both have their work cut out for them, fighting global ignorance and thuggery, dean Peter Elliot appeared and extended me a warm “Merry Christmas.”
Now I’m not sure if this nice Iranian family I’d just befriended knew that we were in a “rebel diocese” or that Dean Elliot was an openly gay priest, or if they would even care. They seemed like educated Tehranis who would have squirmed at Ahmadinejad’s preposterous assertion that homosexuality did not exist in Iran. But suddenly I found myself in a very Canadian moment. I introduced Dean Elliot to the family and he shook everyone’s hand and wished them well. They were thrilled, and he seemed delighted that a nice Muslim family had spent their first Canadian midnight mass listening to his sermon (the best bit was his citation of theologian Avery Dulles: Christmas does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow into the heart of everything that is and there, find it shimmering with divinity.” )
Later the family asked me to give them a tour of the church — a first for me — and explain a few things. “What is this?” asked the nice lady — whose name turned out to be Mrs. Chitsaz — pointing at the baptismal. “Ah….holy water,” I said, and she dutifully dipped a finger in and touched her forehead — as if she were in a Sufi shrine. Then they went to admire the crèche and soon were taking pictures of me and each other in front of the altar and I was even introducing them to the elderly ladies who always sit in the front row and are always perplexed when I tell them that two sets of great-grandparents were married here. It was smiles all round as we said our goodbyes with a greeting familiar to both faiths. “Salam. Peace.” Our words echoed out into the cold, yet somehow welcoming air of the Canadian night.