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'Infidel atheists' comment was misrepresented: Pallister

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Conservative Leader Brian Pallister says he didn’t mean to offend anyone last week when he wished everyone, including "infidel atheists," the best of the holiday season --  and he believes the comment has been "torqued" by his political opponents.

Pallister made the controversial comment late last week in a video shot inside the Legislative Building. His staff said Sunday the video was shot by veteran cable-access performer and blogger Natalie Pollock after question period.

A 23-second clip was later posted on YouTube (see below), where it has received tens of thousands of views.

"It was very judgmental," Donna Harris, president of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM), said Sunday. The use of the word "infidels" is especially troubling and negative, said Harris, because "there are many countries around the world where being a non-believer, or infidel, may possibly be a death sentence."

However Pallister defended the use of the word "infidel,’’ which he said the dictionary defines as "non-believer."

"I’m always disappointed when people misrepresent the meaning of the words. What I was trying to do there is include everyone in my best wishes over the holidays," he told a press conference this morning he called to blast the Selinger government over its tardiness in calling a byelection in Morris.

Asked if he regretted using the term, he said: "Well, I regret any time there is a reaction like this."

He said he also regrets when his opponents misrepresent what he says. "So I guess when I say things and I put ammunition into their hands it obviously makes me regret having said them.

"That being said, I just ask that people in Manitoba ... forgive me at this time of year if they think that I have stepped on their toes, but I sincerely just meant to include everyone in my best wishes. That’s all."

Quarter of Manitobans non-religious

Pallister told Pollock's camera: "I want to wish everyone a really, really merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, all the holidays -- all you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also.

"I don't know what you celebrate during the holiday season, I myself celebrate the birth of Christ, but it's your choice, and I respect your choice.

"If you want to celebrate nothing, and just get together with friends, that's good, too. All the best," said Pallister.

No question is put to him, nor is there any other context offered during the video clip.

Harris said the video is spreading rapidly across websites popular with people who do not share Christian beliefs, and who monitor what's said about them.

"Every year, we seem to have a growth of controversy over the Christmas season -- more of us seem not to believe. We're probably 15 to 20 per cent of the population of Manitoba," Harris said.

According to Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey, about 26% of Manitobans identify as having "no religious affiliation," which includes atheists as well as people identified as agnostic, humanist or "no religion."

Harris said many Christmas symbols were "borrowed or stolen" from non-Christian cultures, including Egyptian, Druid and Wiccan.

Like many members of HAAM, Harris said, she does celebrate the season "by gathering with family and friends, enjoying the love, lights, music, presents and food, just like everyone else.

"This (seeing the video) happened today while I was setting up the tree -- it's a symbol of the season."

Harris invited Pallister to check out the Facebook page for HAAM, and wished him "happy holidays."

Religions in Manitoba

Religion as reported in Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey for the population in private households.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2013 A5


Updated on Monday, December 2, 2013 at 11:04 AM CST: Adds sound clip of Pallister's response to controversy.

11:33 AM: Adds response from Pallister.

12:18 PM: Updates headline.

12:43 PM: Adds graph showing NHS data on religion.

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