The Muslim community in London, Canada is trying to diffuse growing tension at Western University after a multi-faith prayer room at the institution was expanded to include space for Muslims. The loss of the previous prayer room led to the sudden resignation of Reverend Michael Bechard, who had served as the Roman Catholic chaplain at Western University, as well as a protest from four other chaplains, who were members of the UWO Chaplains’ Association. Annette Donovan Panchaud, Janet Loo, Maija Wilson and Melissa Page Nichols, who weren’t employed by the university but paid by their denominations, eventually went on to file their resignations as well.
“It's unfortunate. What is important really is that all faiths are accommodated, in such a setting, to a reasonable degree,” said Abd Alfatah Twakkal, a spiritual leader from the Muslim London Mosque.
Reportedly, Twakkal reached out to Bechard on November 26 in an attempt to find a solution but he refused to divulge details of their conversation.
“I don't want this to get out of hand where it creates feeling between faith communities,” he said.
Bechard refused to comment on the matter altogether, though before his resignation, he had said dedicating space exclusively to one faith group contradicts the fundamental principles propagated by the association. He had also said not all groups were consulted before Western reached its final decision.
Western University announced in mid-November that the existing Muslim prayer room at University College would be accommodated into the Chaplains’ Services office at the University Community Center so they form one single space. According to Susan Grindrod, who serves as the university administrator for chaplaincy, the change was made because University College is undergoing renovation. Since the Muslim prayer room has operated on campus for more than 20 years, it could not be done away with. She said university administrators were stunned with the chaplains’ resignations.
“We thought we had the coordinator of the chaplains at the table, but maybe it wasn't quite as coordinated as we had hoped,” she said. “We had the best interest of students in mind.”
Even though the Muslim Students Association has been demanding a larger prayer room for years, Western University erred in negating the needs of other faith groups, according to Bill Danaher, rector at Christ Church Cranbrook and former dean of theology at Huron College.
“What has to be recognized is that space for prayer, reflection and contemplation has to be open to all people. It is not just Muslims that are faithful,” he said. “The administration needs to do a better job of listening. They have to revisit this and Chaplain Bechard has done courageous work here.
They should have done a space study to gauge the needs for a multi-faith room.”
Photo Credits: Western University