Saturday, October 27, 2007

Youth interfaith council is tackling social issues

Youth interfaith council is tackling social issues
Founder seeks to nurture 'religious pluralists'

Graeme Morton
Calgary Herald

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Afroza Nanji thinks an interfaith council of young Calgarians dedicated to sharing their spirituality and serving their city in practical ways is an idea whose time has come.

The city dentist sold her practice in March to pour her heart and soul into founding the IDEA (Interfaith Dialogue, Education and Action) Youth Initiative.

While the project is still in its early stages, Nanji hopes IDEA will eventually take root in cities across Canada.

She says the Calgary project draws from a successful model that's been operating in Chicago for a decade.

"We have a number of avenues for interfaith dialogue between adults in Calgary, but I sensed there was a gap that needed to be addressed for those at the high school and university-age level," says Nanji, a Muslim.

Twelve young people -- two each from Calgary's Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Sikh and Hindu communities -- have been meeting every two weeks since mid-September to share the traditions of their faith, get to know each other and plan social action projects.

Team member Amanda Achtman, who is in Grade 11 at a Calgary Catholic high school, says the respect and tolerance IDEA is promoting "could go a long way to resolving differences, both locally and internationally.

"To learn about other faith traditions face-to-face instead of from a textbook or on the computer is a lot more effective," says Achtman.

Nanji stresses IDEA is determined to put collective faith into action and not become a purely academic exercise. Key areas of social justice interest expressed by the group's 12 "pioneers" include youth-at-risk, native outreach, poverty eradication and health issues.

IDEA members will be serving a meal at the Drop-In Centre on Nov. 18, then sitting down to talk with clients one-on-one. A major social action project is in the planning stage for the new year.

"It's important to see how our assumptions about problems like homelessness and the reality on the street come together," says Nanji.

Sukhjeet Sidhu, a Sikh student in her third year at the University of Calgary, said IDEA's hands-on component was a big draw for her.

"It's striking to discover the many similarities in the basic beliefs of our faiths -- how there are different paths to travel to the one God," said Sidhu.

Pooja Thakore, a Hindu student in her final year at the U of C, adds,

"The bottom line is that we all want to work together for the betterment of Calgary."

Nanji says the spiritually infused format of the IDEA project will continue from year to year, but the lineup of religions represented may change.

She wants to reach out to other local faith communities such as Buddhists, First Nations and humanists.

"Calgary is becoming more culturally diverse every day," says Nanji.

"We want to help develop a generation of religious pluralists who are confident in their own faith, but who realize and appreciate there are other ways to approach the divine."

More information on the program is available via e-mail at

© The Calgary Herald 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Upcoming Event - CCCJ Fall Dialogue - Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Canadian Council of Christians and Jews – Alberta Region

A Fall Dialogue

Opening and Closing Song: Rebecca Levant, International Cantorial Soloist

Moderator: David Gravells, Author of “Biblical Environmental Stewardship Today” (BEST)

- Dr. Michael Hawley
Instructor, Religious Studies, Mount Royal College, representing Eastern religions
- Dr. Afroza Nanji
Representing the Muslim Community, Founder of IDEA
(Interfaith Dialogue, Education and Action) Youth Initiative
- The Very Rev. Bill Phipps
Past Moderator, The United Church of Canada; Founder, Faith and the Common Good
- Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman
Spiritual Leader of Temple B’Nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish Congregation

Sunday, November 4, 2007
2:30 to 5:00 p.m.
St. Peter’s Anglican Church
903 – 75 Avenue S.W., Calgary

Tickets: $10.00 (refreshments to follow)

Advance Reservations: Marcia 252-2161

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Save the Children Canada - Kilimanjaro Challenge 2007

Childhood pledge inspires climber's charity pilgrimage
Consultant vowed to scale Africa's tallest mountain

Graeme Morton
Calgary Herald
Saturday, September 15, 2007

As a child growing up in Tanzania, Almoonir Dewji could see the dramatic cone of Mount Kilimanjaro shimmering in the distance when his family when on trips.

He made a promise to himself to scale the highest peak in Africa someday, targeting the trek before he turned 50.

On Jan. 2, Dewji hopes to stand on the summit of the 5,895-metre peak, fulfilling a personal pilgrimage and raising funds for a humanitarian effort close to his heart.

Dewji is one of eight Albertans who'll be part of a party of 30 making the climb to support Save the Children Canada HIV/AIDS programs in Kenya. Each hiker is committed to raise at least $5,000 for the group's work with children orphaned by the pandemic. All will cover their own transportation and personal costs.

"I've been very inspired by the work of Stephen Lewis to bring the AIDS crisis to the attention of the West and I see this as something concrete I can do as one individual," says Dewji, a vice-president of a Calgary management consultant firm.

"And as a Muslim, I see this trip as trying to live out my faith's calling to be of service to my fellow man," he adds. "We need to try to leave the world a little better than when we came into it. We live in a prosperous part of the world and with that comes a responsibility to share our time and our resources with those in need."

Dewji, 45, took a sabbatical from his desk this past summer to swing a hammer on a Habitat for Humanity build in the city. "I'm not a great handyman by any means, but I found it a very rewarding experience. I was working side-by-side with people who were going to be living in these homes and you could see how inspired they were."

Dewji, who suffers from asthma, says he became more physically active about a decade ago. He's now an avid swimmer, cyclist, jogger and rower, but Kilimanjaro will put his cardio and endurance fitness to a new test.

A colleague took him up Mount Fairview, near Lake Louise, on Labour Day. "Fairview is a little less than half as high as Kilimanjaro, so I got a taste of mountain scrambling and how much more work I need to do in the months ahead," Dewji says.

Spending more time outdoors has only served to strengthen Dewji's spiritual side. "When you stand on top of a mountain or you're rowing on a calm body of water on a beautiful day, you can't help but appreciate God's creation and want to be a better steward of it," says Dewji, who is active in a Calgary Christian-Muslim dialogue committee.

Dewji will leave Calgary on Boxing Day and says the Canadian party, many of whom are pharmacists, will spend six days on the mountain.

"We're scheduled to spend a couple of days between 12,000 and 15,000 feet to make sure we're well acclimatized to the higher altitude," says Dewji. "The actual ascent is supposed to begin at something like two in the morning on January 2. I'm generally a morning person, but . . . ," he adds with a grin.

More information on the Kilimanjaro expedition Dewji will be a part of can be found on

© The Calgary Herald 2007

To dye or not to dye

To dye or not to dye
Calgary -- I was disappointed that your article Bin Laden Urges Americans To Convert (Sept. 8) degenerated into a story about whether Osama bin Laden has dyed his beard. It is this kind of "serious journalism" that has led to Mr. bin Laden's portrayal as a representative of Islam.

Original article:

Bin Laden urges Americans to convert
Embracing Islam instead of democracy will help end Iraq war, he says in videotaped address
Saturday, September 8, 2007 Page A22
With a report from Matt Hartley

WASHINGTON -- Fugitive al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden issued an appeal yesterday to ordinary Americans, inviting them to embrace Islam and reject the military-industrial complex or face endless attacks.

In a videotaped message marking the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he made no new specific threats, but said he understands why Americans have wearied of the wars launched by President George. W. Bush and explained why voters cannot stop them.

"Americans: The world is following the news of your invasion of Iraq ... after years of tragedies in this war, the vast majority of you now want it stopped," Mr. bin Laden said in a message which - if authenticated - would be his first videotape message in nearly three years.

Only a preliminary and poorly translated English transcript of the tape was available. But the video was apparently made recently because it contains references to events of the past few weeks.

Mr. bin Laden heaps scorn on the United States. "Despite America being the greatest economic power and possessing a most powerful and up-to-date military
arsenal, despite spending on this war more than the military spending of the entire world, despite all this 19 young men were able, by the grace of Allah the most high, to change of the direction of its compass."

The reference to the 19 suicide hijackers who seized four jetliners six years ago next Tuesday echoed earlier messages from the al-Qaeda leader, now believed to be holed up in a newly carved out extremist haven in the remote borderlands of Pakistan.

He repeatedly returns to a theme of why ordinary Americans have failed to stop an increasingly unpopular war. The reason, he says, is that the real power lies with the military-industrial complex; the huge corporations that profit from conflict. "Money talks," he says. In a sometimes rambling, 25-minute address, he implies that former president John Kennedy was assassinated because he tried to stop the Vietnam War. Similarly, he says that the failure of the Democrats to stop the Iraq war, despite being elected to majorities in Congress, reflects the power of the corporations.

If the man in the video really is Mr. bin Laden, it would appear he has changed the colour of his beard. In the video, his beard appears black, whereas in past videotapes it was grey with dark streaks.

There is some debate in the Muslim community over whether or not the dyeing of a man's beard is permissible under the tenets of Islam. Some Muslims believe that a man may dye his beard black only in times of war, in an effort to appear young and fierce in the eyes of his enemy.

Toronto Imam Aly Hindy said Muslims may dye their beards brown or reddish only. "The Prophet said you can dye, but avoid black," he said.

He said that if the man in the video has a black beard, it might not be Mr. bin Laden, who is usually very careful about such small details.

But Mohamed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress said there is nothing in the Islamic faith that dictates whether or not a man may colour his beard. "It's a cultural thing, it has nothing to do with religion," he said.

Mr. bin Laden offers two courses of action: either a continuation of the war or a rejection of democracy by Americans. He also blames powerful and greedy global corporations with endangering "all mankind ... because of global warming."

"The greatest of plagues and most dangerous of threats to humans taking place in an accelerating fashion [because democracy] has failed to protect mankind from the greed and avarice of the major corporations."

Religious leaders build bridges - Calgary Muslims, Christians initiate monthly dialogue

Religious leaders build bridges
Calgary Muslims, Christians initiate monthly dialogue

Graeme Morton
Calgary Herald
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Calgary Christian and Muslim leaders have formed a group to improve dialogue between the two faiths.

A group of Calgary clergy and lay people are quietly building bridges between the city's Christian and Muslim communities in the wake of fears of rising interfaith tensions.

In a recent report, the Association for Canadian Studies said 1,500 people polled believe friction between Christians and Muslims will overtake traditional French-English language differences as the leading source of tension in Canadian society by 2017.

One-third of all Canadians surveyed said they were "pessimistic" about the future of Christian-Muslim relations in our country. That percentage jumped to 49 per cent in Quebec.

So is there room for local common ground between the world's two largest faiths in an increasingly fractious global environment?

Members of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue of Calgary think so.

"One of the reasons people love Canada is our pluralism," says David Liepert, a member of the Muslim Council of Calgary.

"We want to do everything we can to support that concept, to be able to live our faith in a pluralistic society," adds Liepert.

The local group was formed two years ago in the wake of a visit by Stuart Brown, an expert in Christian-Muslim relations.

"We were able to first get representatives from five Calgary Muslim traditions together in the same room, which was a first," says Almoonir Dewji.

"It took the Christians to get all the Muslims together," he adds with a laugh.

Christian representatives were drawn from Roman Catholic and "mainline" Protestant denominations, including Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and United, as well as "unattached" members.

"The early meetings were spent getting to know one another and obtaining a good grounding in each others' faith, authority and scriptures," says Rev. Jean Morris, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada.

Since its birth, Calgary's Muslim-Christian Dialogue group has met on a monthly basis. Together with the Jewish community, it issued a joint public statement encouraging respectful attitudes toward all identifiable groups in the wake of the infamous Danish cartoon portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.

When Pope Benedict's controversial use of quotes on Islam from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor made headlines last September, local Catholic leaders came together with their Muslim counterparts to discuss the context and diffuse the potential for anger.

"If tensions develop, it's much easier to sit down and talk about it calmly if you know the other individual on a personal level," says Antal Prokecz of the city's Catholic community.

"And if a difficult situation comes up somewhere in the world, we're able to stand up for each other locally," he adds.

Dewji believes any increase in interfaith tensions is part of a natural evolution in Canadian society. "We seemed to have worked through our linguistic and multicultural issues, so it's not surprising the new focus is on matters of faith," says Dewji.

"We're supposed to be in an increasingly secular time, but I think people are talking about their religion more than ever."

While some valuable groundwork has been laid, group members are under no illusions that problems between Christians and Muslims will vanish in starry-eyed optimism and good works. They acknowledge that heated international political and theological feuds could migrate close to home. And they'd like to expand the group's Christian component to include more members from the evangelical wing of the faith.

But communication lines are open, friendships are in place and trust continues to grow. And that's not bad.

"People are realizing they need to get to know their neighbours," says Liepert. "Neighbours don't pick on neighbours, they pick on 'the other.' "

Anna Tremblay, one of the group's founders, would like to see the local organization become "a model for what's possible between people of faith.

"In a dialogue, you don't always agree, but you can understand and respect the other person's viewpoint," she says.

© The Calgary Herald 2007

Monday, October 1, 2007

Passover brings religions together - A sharing of thought, food, prayer

Passover brings religions together
A sharing of thought, food, prayer

Graeme Morton
Calgary Herald
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Calgary's Jewish community symbolically invited the rest of the city to its "table" recently to share in one of Judaism's most important festivals.

About 115 representatives from Calgary's religious, cultural and diplomatic communities attended a special Passover Seder at Beth Tzedec Synagogue last week where they shared a meal and insights into the meaning of the prayers, music and rich traditions and rituals that mark Passover.

"We hope this will become an annual event. Part of the Passover tradition is to welcome strangers to our table," said Nelson Halpern, president of the Calgary Jewish Community Council, the organizer of the event.

Jews around the world will celebrate Passover this year beginning at sunset on Monday, April 2.

Passover celebrates the story of the ancient Israelites and their departure from slavery in Pharoah's Egypt.

Found in the Book of Exodus, it is one of the most dramatic of Biblical narratives, with the tyranny of forced labour, the birth of Moses and his emergence as his people's leader, God's promise of deliverance, the series of 10 plagues visited on the Egyptians and the miracle of the Red Sea crossing.

But Passover's overriding theme, one that echoes down through thousands of years, is the thirst for freedom.

"Freedom is not an abstract concept. Many of our families came from a situation of oppression," Halpern noted.

Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer, who led a pre-dinner question-and-answer session in the synagogue's sanctuary, said Pass-over encourages what he called a telescoping of time.

"We must think about the message of Passover not only in terms of 'they and then' but of 'us and now,' " Ofseyer said.

"We must never take our freedom for granted. It is a precious gift."

Synagogue visitors were matched with a Jewish "buddy" during the meal to help explain the significance of its symbols and elements of the seder plate, including the unleavened matzah bread, egg, shank bone, bitter herbs and parsley.

Calgary is believed to be only the third Canadian city where the Jewish community has hosted such a Passover seder for other faith groups. Clergy and lay people from a half dozen other faiths helped read prayers and ritual explanations throughout the evening.

Similar dinners have been been held by Jewish communities in Montreal and Winnipeg.

"We wanted to do something educational, cultural and inspirational," said Lance Davis,

executive director of the CJCC.

"We wanted to say, 'This is what we do, these are our traditions, we welcome you," Davis added, noting Passover seders in Jewish homes often continue "until two or three in the morning, but we won't keep you that long."

The event was spearheaded by Hanita Dagan, who heads up CJCC's community relations committee.

Dagan was delighted with the public response to the invitation and the bonds that were built throughout the evening.

"You look around this room tonight and there are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists . . . you name it, all eating, learning and talking
together," Dagan said.

"There's not a lot of countries in the world you would find this taking place. With what is going on in many parts of the world, we never want to lose the message of tolerance and the desire for freedom."

© The Calgary Herald 2007