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United Church cancels event honouring Palestinian ‘terrorist’

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Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto. (Google Street View photo)

In the wake of pressure from B’nai Brith Canada, a Toronto church has cancelled an event the Jewish group said would have honoured a Palestinian terrorist who helped plan a massacre.

Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church announced on July 5 that it had scrapped its plan to grant space for the Ghassan Kanafani Resistance Arts Scholarship launch, an event organized by the Toronto chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and scheduled at the downtown church for July 13.

It backed out of the event after B’nai Brith issued a statement earlier in the day calling on Canadians to condemn the church’s “refusal to call off the event,” and circulated a petition to that effect.

The organization said it received a letter later that same day, saying that the church’s board “has elected to cancel the event.”

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Michael Mostyn, the Jewish advocacy group’s CEO, said he was relieved that the church “eventually came to the correct decision, to help prevent the shameful glorification of a terrorist.”

However, Mostyn added, “This story is not over. We will continue to investigate how a youth scholarship named after a notorious terrorist is permitted to function in Canada and the United States, and take all possible steps to thwart it.”

In its earlier statement, B’nai Brith pointed out that Kanafani was “a leading member” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a designated terrorist group in Canada.

Kanafani “forged connections between the PFLP and other far-left terrorist groups,” including the Japanese Red Army, whose members were recruited by the PFLP to carry out the 1972 Lod Airport massacre, in which 26 people were killed, including a Canadian woman, B’nai Brith pointed out.

Graffiti depicting Palestinian terrorist Ghassan Kanafani is seen in Palestine. (Justin McIntosh/CC BY 2.0)

Kanafani, who was also a celebrated Palestinian novelist, was assassinated in Beirut in July 1972 by the Mossad, for his role in the massacre, several sources say.

The PYM “itself has a long record of glorifying terrorism,” B’nai Brith went on.

According to B’nai Brith, in a 2017 email boosting the scholarship named for Kanafani, PYM hailed “resistance, whether by pen or gun.” And in 2018, the PYM “translated and posted the last words of ‘the martyr Mohammad Tareq,’ encouraging further terrorist attacks along the lines of Tareq’s, in which one Israeli was murdered and two others wounded,” B’nai Brith charged.

Trinity-St. Paul’s plan to host the event was “shameful and grotesque,” Mostyn said before the cancellation.

In an email to The CJN, Colin Phillips, vice-chair of Trinity-St. Paul’s board of directors, said that “hundreds” of groups rent rooms at the church for one-time events over the course of a year. This particular request “was handled as per our processes for such bookings,” Phillips said.

In a statement to Postmedia News, he said the event “was initially determined to be in line with the congregation’s (focus on) the arts and peacemaking in the Middle East.”

The board cancelled the booking “when it was clear that hosting it would be inconsistent with church policy,” Phillips told The CJN. He said the church has not rented space to PYM in the past.

The church’s spiritual leader, Rev. Cheri DiNovo, who served as an Ontario NDP MPP from 2016 to 2017, “had no involvement in the original decision and unequivocally supports the cancellation of the event,” Phillips added.

Rev. Cheri DiNovo (Ontario NDP photo)

Rev. DiNovo “will be pleased to engage with B’nai Brith and other members of the Jewish community about this situation upon her return from vacation in August.”

In a Facebook posting, PYM Toronto described the event as “an evening of spoken word, music and food to celebrate the artistic and cultural contributions of Palestinians in the diaspora and showcase the winners of the Ghassan Kanafani Resistance Arts Scholarship in this years [sic] anthology, entitled We feel a country in our bones.”

By awarding the scholarship named for Kanafani and compiling an anthology of 15 submissions, the group said that it aims “to provide a space for Palestinians in the diaspora to reflect on their Palestinian identities, positionality and relationships to Palestine. In honour of the works and vision of the heroic novelist, Ghassan Kanafani, the scholarship aims to focus on Palestinian history, our past, present and future struggles, and our multi-faceted identities.

“We reiterate a truth that Ghassan Kanafani held in his life’s work and legacy: art and culture are critical vehicles for resistance.”

The PYM did not respond to The CJN’s request for comment on the cancellation.

“While we commend the church for its decision to stand against the glorification of terrorists and cancel this event, churches and other event spaces should do their due diligence before allowing groups to host events that are not aligned with their policies and values,” said Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre president and CEO Avi Benlolo in a written statement.

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