Faith and public space forum by Quebec religious leaders

24 October 2023

Translated and adapted from an article by Alexis Drapeau-Bordage. Reprinted with permission from Présence: Information réligieuse

Some sixty leaders from Quebec's religious community gathered on October 12 for the first edition of the Foi et Espace Public forum, organized by the Table Interreligieuse de Concertation du Québec, a partnership including Catholic, United, Anglican, Evangelical Baptist and Armenian churches, various mosques and Jewish traditions, and the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism.

One of the first aspects addressed during the conference was the beneficial role religious spaces fill in their community. Bochra Manaï, anti-racism and anti-discrimination commissioner for the City of Montreal, believes they are very important places for new arrivals to socialize and integrate.

Frédéric Dejean, professor in the department of religious studies at UQAM, agrees. According to his studies, the worship dimension is sometimes only a tiny part of the use of places of worship, which are often used for social, cultural and community activities. He considers, among other things, that churches have made it possible to welcome Syrian refugees and many Haitians to Quebec. "Without places of worship, the bulk of the work would not have been done," he said.

Sixty Quebec religious leaders held a public forum in October highlighting how houses of worship benefit society.

Manaï added that these places are particularly important for young people, who don't always have a place to spend their free time. "It's normal for young people to find themselves in places of worship when community spaces are being cut," she said.

Rabbi Silberstein, another speaker, underlined the importance by recalling a discussion he had as a chaplain with a prison inmate about God and human dignity. "Where were you when I was 15?" the criminal leader asked him, making a deep impression on the man of faith.

"If I'd heard those words [of encouragement in a religious space] back then," the inmate said, "I wouldn't be here today" in prison.

This testimony shows that it is essential for prevention purposes to give young people the opportunity "to realize that every human being is an individual with a reason for being," regardless of how religious practice is articulated, says Silberstein.

The need for translators

With this social role poorly understood by government institutions, several panelists agreed on the need for "translators" to enable religious communities to make themselves heard by civil servants and other administrators. Manaï considers that she performs this function at the municipal level, which she feels has little understanding of the reality of religious groups. She thinks translators are very important in combating radicalization, which she describes as above all "the failure of discussion."

According to Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, who headed Canada's Office of Religious Freedom from its inception until its dissolution in 2016, the observation is clear. "Our institutions don't understand religion, what religious people do and why."

Dejean explains that talking about a religious experience with a non-believer, as most civil servants are, is very difficult. Their "religious literacy" is very low, he says, which prevents them from understanding the reality of places of worship, especially in minority communities. The government's language when it comes to religious space is not about its content, but rather about the impact it will have on urban society. A reflex that religious leaders rarely adopt, hence the need for translators, he believes.


Faced with this misunderstanding between religion and politics, secularism is overstepping its bounds, according to most speakers.

"We used to talk about secularism as the neutrality of the state in the face of religion, and more and more it's slipping into the negative, now it's more established as a new religion that replaces all others," asserts Imam Assan Guillet of Quebec City's Grand Mosque.

In this context, activist Eve Torres explains that it is seen as wrong "to be part of a faith community and at the same time want to register as a citizen in a society that claims to be secular." For Mouloud Idir of the Centre justice et foi, secularism is a regime "hostile to religious visibility." Among other things, it would make certain forms of racism acceptable, by excluding certain groups such as Arabs from the social space on the grounds that their discourse is religious and therefore lesser.

Louis Bourque, general director of the Association des églises baptistes du Québec, sees this as "totalitarianism" aimed at eliminating religious reality from the political arena. For him, faith manifests itself in all areas of life, and it is therefore impossible for a believer not to bear witness to his or her religion publicly. "The only people who benefit from secularism are the non-religious. For those who have beliefs, there is inevitably discrimination," he concludes.

Photo of Rabbi Silberstein by Alexis Drapeau-Bordage. Reprinted with permission.