A glimpse of compassion after arson at Mosque in Peterborough

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Racism, misogyny, and hate have dominated the headlines of our time. “Where is the love?” you might ask.

Sometimes adversity brings out the best in human beings.

On November 14, 2015, in the dark of night, someone approached the mosque from the east, smashed one of the large side windows, and hurled an accelerant inside.

Kenzu Abdella, a Trent University professor and the president of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association, got a call about 11:00 p.m. that night from a friend, who said, “The mosque is on fire.”

Abdella raced down the street and within ten minutes arrived at the building. Smoke poured from the mosque. He said loudly to himself, “It is really going to burn down.”

As one can imagine, his heart ached with terror and sadness as the house of worship he cared so much for was engulfed in a destructive flame. The Masjid Al-Salaam Mosque served about one thousand people in and around Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. All Abdella could think of was that the morning and evening prayers and many religious festivities would be no more at this place. What to do next?

The firefighters extinguished the blaze. No one was hurt. The mosque was emptied and the damage assessed.

The next day the insurance adjusters inspected the charred building and estimated the repairs could cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

As the fire was devouring the building, Beth Israel Synagogue president Larry Gillman heard of the bad news while he was at an interfaith dinner with Muslims, Jews, and Christians. He later said, “I was sad, and I wanted to reach out to the Muslim community.”

Immediately, Larry emailed his board with a request to share the synagogue with the Muslim community, knowing that the members would not have a place to pray in the ensuing days and months until the restoration was done. The board’s response was unanimous, immediate, and positive. For two weeks the Jumu’ah prayer (Friday congressional prayer) was held at Beth Israel Synagogue, a first in Canada. Upon reflection of this accommodation, Larry made a profound remark. He said, “There’s been so much bad press between Muslims and Jews, and we hope for a better world. We hope for peace and, in Canada, we’re neighbours.”

Word spread fast in the religious communities of Peterborough. The town rallied to help the Muslim community. In addition to the synagogue, 15 churches offered space for morning and evening prayers. The members of Masjid Al-Salaam chose five churches of varying faiths and accepted the offers.

What about the cost of repairs?

On November 20, a crowdfunding campaign was initiated by private citizens, and within two days, more than $110,000 was raised to rebuild the mosque. Kenzu Abdella reacted, “It has shown us Peterborough is amazing.”

Kenzu Abdella was very touched as a hateful crime turned into something positive. “We’re so grateful to everyone. It’s not just the financial aspect that really makes us very proud to be Canadian and proud to be a part of the Peterborough community, but the comments we’ve received in support… it’s been great for us.”

On January 17, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Peterborough, Ontario, where he spoke at a mosque that was damaged by arson the previous November.

He toured Masjid Al-Salaam, the city’s only mosque, which reopened in late December after repairs were made, and attended its open house.

On February 3, 2017, many came to show their solidarity with the local Muslim community at the Masjid Al-Salaam, after an attack at another mosque in Quebec City.

At this event, Daryl Bennett, the mayor of Peterborough, declared that the Muslim faith is no different than other religions, but is often feared because of a lack of understanding. He said, “To give some compassion from a community standpoint to a very tragic event. While it occurred in a different province, it certainly affects all Canadians and that’s what we’re here for.”

Almost a hundred years ago, when the world seemed to be primitive in global consciousness compared to now, Abdu’l-Baha said, “Know that God is compassionate towards all; therefore, love all from the depths of your hearts, prefer all religionists before yourselves, be filled with love for every race, and be kind towards the people of all nationalities.” Peterborough is a town I know very well and is also considered to be one of the most conservative places in Canada, yet we find in the hearts of its religious and political leaders, as well as its citizens, the echoes of Abdu’l-Baha’s sentiments.

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