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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.