The people of Westworth United Church have already opened up their lives to Syrian Muslims, and now they’re inspired to open up their hearts.

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The people of Westworth United Church have already opened up their lives to Syrian Muslims, and now they’re inspired to open up their hearts.

"We thought because we are in the middle of a one-year sponsorship of Syrian refugees, this was the perfect opportunity to learn about Islam," says Rev. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd about a five-week study series on Islam and Christianity.

Last fall, the River Heights church, along with members of Muslim and Jewish communities, sponsored six adults and 18 children from Syria. The multi-faith sponsorship group, called REFUGE, has raised about $100,000 of the $120,000 needed to sponsor these three families for their first 12 months in Canada.

Running during the Christian season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, the free series covers topics such as violence, reading difficult passages in the Qur’an and the Bible, and issues of hate, violence and racism in both faiths, says MacKenzie Shepherd.

"We’re trying to have a dialogue. We’re trying not to learn just about Islam, but learn about Islam in dialogue with Christianity."

That dialogue includes setting up a room in the church for Muslims attending the series to pray during evening prayer times.

What Canadian Muslims want their neighbours to understand is Islam has a long history of calling its adherents to promote good, help those in need and work for justice, says Winnipeg lawyer Omar Siddiqui, a volunteer with the Islamic Social Services Association.

"The core values of Islam — social, political economic and environmental justice, peace, equality, human rights — are values shared by all Canadians," says Siddiqui, who opens the series Monday with a presentation on fundamentals of Islam.

He says Muslims often have to face misconceptions about their faith and endure being "talked about, talked at and talked over with a prevailing narrative that uses Islamophobic rhetoric."

Another misconception surrounds the dress of Muslim women and that covering their hair or face is a sign of oppression, says Siddiqui’s mother, Shahina Siddiqui, executive director the Islamic Social Services Association, who speaks on women’s status and dress March 14.

She says wearing a headscarf or the hijab represents a personal expression of religious beliefs and is not a matter for political debate, as in last October’s federal election.

In Islam, men and women are required to dress modestly, she says, calling modesty a frame of mind.

"Extravagance would be discouraged, waste would be discouraged," she says.

Except for some conservative groups such as Old Order Mennonites or Hutterites, Christian women in Canada do not have any uniform dress code, but contemporary culture imposes other restrictions, says a University of Winnipeg religion professor sharing the podium with Shahina Siddiqui on March 14.

"I think we have the illusion of freedom in the West, but it is circumscribed by consumerist culture," says Jane Barter of the University of Winnipeg, who adds women are often judged by what they wear.

As an Anglican priest, Barter faces interesting challenges regarding clothing, such as how to wear the clerical collar in a style that is comfortable and feminine and dealing with the reactions clerical garb can provoke.

"It does set you apart within the community and it has a religious solidarity," explains the honorary assistant at St. Luke’s Anglican Church.

MacKenzie Shepherd welcomes the difficult conversations the series might provoke and hopes people feel free to ask questions and share their opinions.

"If we can actually talk about some of our concerns and biggest fears about the other, than we can actually break through some of the walls that divide us," she says.

Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.

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