Home News Canada Quebec honours interfaith effort to assist Syrian refugees

Quebec honours interfaith effort to assist Syrian refugees

Verdun MNA and cabinet minister Isabelle Melançon, centre, presents National Assembly Medals to, from left, Rabbi Levi Itkin, Samuel Gewurz, Mourad Bendjennet and Roger Légaré. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

The spirit of goodwill and collaboration among a Catholic church, a mosque and a Chabad centre have been recognized by the Quebec government and held up as an example to all.

Le collectif pour l’unité, an ongoing interfaith project on Montreal’s Nuns’ Island, was presented with the National Assembly Medal by MNA Isabelle Melançon, in a ceremony at the Elgar Community Centre on Dec. 10.

She said the religious groups are sending a powerful message to Quebec, the rest of Canada and to the world.

“There are no different classes of Quebecers, no matter their origin or religion. Only one class,” she said. “Our future is only possible if we learn about our neighbours and connect with each other.”

For almost two years, members of Ste-Marguerite Bourgeoys Church, the Al-Jazira Islamic Centre and Chabad of Nuns’ Island have been working side-by-side to help resettle recently arrived Syrian refugees.

They wish to be a model of what is possible when people set aside their differences to better the lives of others.


The medals were presented to: Roger Légaré, a church lay leader; Mourad Bendjennet, administrator of the Islamic centre; Rabbi Levi Itkin of Chabad; and Samuel Gewurz, the project’s “architect” and Nuns’ Island’s pre-eminent real estate developer over the past half-century.

He followed in the footsteps of his late father, Juda Gewurz, who bought the island in 1955 from the nuns of Congrégation de Notre-Dame, and has always been conscious – as an observant Jew – of the necessity of maintaining good intercultural relations.

When the Muslim community got established there a few years ago, and Chabad set up shop to reach out to a small, but growing, Jewish population, Gewurz saw an opportunity to foster a three-way partnership.

Since last year, the three religious groups have literally been praying under the same roof, as Chabad joined the church and the mosque as an occupant of a small shopping centre that’s partly owned by Gewurz.

The church is at the front of the L-shaped mall, in a former grocery store. The Chabad centre is next door and Al-Jazira just two doors away.

The square that separates the mall and the Elgar centre was named Place de l’unité in December 2016 by the borough of Verdun. It is hoped that the designation will reinforce what the collectif is ultimately trying to achieve.

Nuns’ Island in Montreal. OKNIDIUS/FLICKR PHOTO

At the same time, a bell tower on the church, whose construction Gewurz underwrote at Légaré’s request, was inaugurated. Gewurz’s condition was that the four bells it houses be known as “the bells of unity.”

Gewurz said the collectif is proof that the values shared by the three faiths “and all decent human beings” can be put to use for the benefit of the less fortunate. His hope now is for Nuns’ Island to designate an annual day when all its approximately 20,000 residents are encouraged to volunteer for a good cause.

As Rabbi Itkin said, “nothing happens without the right people and the will.… Sam was the visionary, he inspired us and showed us the common denominators among us and how we could be a shining example to others.”

“As with Chanukah,” Rabbi Itkin continued, “when one candle is not enough and another is lit each night, we have to go on and on to get rid of the darkness in the world. We can’t stop now. I hope this is only the beginning of more acts of goodness and kindness.”

Bendjennet thanked his parents for instilling in him the values that have made the project possible. “We have put aside what divides us and overcome all obstacles through mutual respect,” he said. “This is the best heritage I can give my children.”

The collectif has assisted some 500 Syrian refugee families, distributing clothing, furnishings and other necessities from a warehouse on Nuns’ Island.

We have put aside what divides us and overcome all obstacles through mutual respect.
– Mourad Bendjennet

Ayman and Nourah Al-Sabbagh, a Muslim couple who were present at the ceremony, arrived in Montreal in April 2016 with three young children. Today, they have six, Nourah having just given birth to triplets.

The baby clothes and equipment the collectif provided have been invaluable and very much appreciated, Ayman said.

They are also grateful to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, and have honoured them by naming two of their infants Justin and Sophie.

Also on hand to congratulate the collectif were Verdun Borough Mayor Jean-François Parenteau and MP Marc Miller.

The ceremony ended with the singing of the classic Quebec song by Raymond Lévesque, Quands les hommes vivront d’amour, a plea for peace among all humanity.

  • Michael Mann

    Are we nuts? If we could sort out Kurds, Yazidis and Christians from among the Syrian refugees, that’s who Jews should help. Sunni Arabs are raised on hostility toward Jews and we import them at our peril. Sadly, no one is permitted to ask about religious status of immigrants from Syria.

    Stats from the 2016 census were published a month or so ago and demonstrate on the basis of country of origin that forty percent of ALL immigrants to Canada from 2011 to 2016 were Sunni Arabs. The figure is approximately 405,000, not including 85,000 Syrians that Justin Trudeau wants to bring in during 2017/2018.

    Who do you think is making life on campus hell for Jewish students? Who do you think returning IS fighters are? Who do you think is nodding in appreciation at hatred of Jews being proclaimed in Mississauga, Ontario, mosques?

    Where do you think Private Member’s Motion 103 proscribing “Islamophobia” comes from? If the trajectory of that initiative carries through, a government bill will render discussions of Islam and Muslims a contravention of legislation. That is suppression of speech.

    Addition of “Muslims” to the Charter will provide the avantages of Section 15 — affirmative action — to Muslims. Federal government “diversity” programs have already translated into the hiring of disproportionate numbers of Sunni Muslims, especially in the consular corps which is the responsibility of junior Minister Omar Alghabra, Liberal MP from Mississauga Centre and a documented hater of Israel.

    Turning Canada into an Islamist safe haven is Liberal Party policy. One and a quarter million Muslims in Canada, manipulated by the Islamists among them, represent a voting demographic bringing more than a few safe seats to federal Liberals. Profligate recruitment of Sunni Arab immigrants by Liberals also brings “progressive” voters over to the Liberals, many from the NDP. Donald Trump is not the only politician who governs through a political base.

    Am I “profiling?” Profiling on reasonabe grounds is sound security policy adopted by many western states. Stephen Harper’s bill C-51 did that but Liberals are currently revising that initiative for the sake of votes.

    Canadian Jews are sleep walking into self-destruction if we think uncritical support for immigration from Syria — or the Arab world generally — represents Tikkun Olam.

    • Normando782

      Unfortunately you are absolutely correct.

    • Joe Q.

      “Stats from the 2016 census were published a month or so ago and demonstrate on the basis of country of origin that forty percent of ALL immigrants to Canada from 2011 to 2016 were Sunni Arabs. ”

      I very quickly found a table on the Statscan website listing immigration by time period and country of birth. I added up the numbers of immigrants from predominantly Sunni Arab countries from 2011-2016 and came to about 111,000, representing a little over 9% of total immigration in that period. That’s a whole lot less than the 40% you quote.

      You can do the same: http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/hlt-fst/imm/Table.cfm?Lang=E&T=21&Geo=01

      Where does YOUR data come from?

      • Michael Mann

        You’re not quite right but I did miscalculate. I do get a total close to yours, 116,585, but refugees are in a separate category from immigrants, not broken down within that category. We do know that Liberals will have admitted about 85,000 Syrian refugees over 2017/2018 and Syrian refugees have been entering for some time although in fewer numbers.

        That looks like about 225,000 Sunni Arabs from 2011 to the end of 2018. That is about half of all immigration from Sunni Arab states, immigrants plus refugees, and about 18 percent of all immigrants during that period.

        That number still represents an alert because the consequences are no different — safe Liberal seats and incentive for “progressives” to vote Liberal. The latter is the significant influence on election results.
        The numbers still explain persecution of Jewish students on campus, return of IS fighters to Canada, hatred of Jews emanating from Mississauga, Ontario, all abetted by the Liberal government.

        The lower, corrected number of Sunni Arabs arriving in Canada is no less a horror for Canada and for Canadian Jews.

        • Joe Q.

          Your reasoning still has a lot of mistakes (despite the four-fold numerical mess-up — I hope you’re not an engineer or pharmacist!)

          The first is that you are assuming that everyone who comes from a predominantly Sunni Arab country is a Sunni Arab. That, of course, is not the case. For example, Egypt is 90% Sunni Arab and 10% Coptic, but the makeup of Egyptian immigrants to Canada is 30% Sunni Arab and 70% Coptic.

          The second mistake (similar to the first) is in assuming that all Syrian refugees are Sunni Arabs. We know that’s not the case — as with the Egyptians here, a huge fraction of Syrian refugees are Kurds, Armenians, etc.

          The third is, of course, the overwhelming one — the idea that any Arab immigrant is a threat to Jews and / or to the Canadian way of life. I don’t buy that, just as I don’t buy your politically focused reasoning.

          At the end of the day, Syrians are in mortal danger in their home country, and want to leave — just as Jews were in mortal danger in their home countries in the 1930s, and wanted to leave. Some people see all Syrian refugees as threats because of their religion and the small number of Muslims in Canada who are prominent Israel-bashers, just as people saw all Jews as threats in the 1930s because of their religion and the small number of Jews in Canada who were prominent Communists.

          When I read reasoning like what you’ve posted above, I can’t help but think of that analogy.