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Pastor is accused of bigotry over World Hijab Day attacks

The Berkeley Institute’s celebration of the school’s second annual World Hijab Day (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A pastor who accused the Berkeley Institute of “idolatry” after students learnt about Islam on campus for world hijab day has insisted there was no malice behind her online remarks.

The Reverend Maria Seaman spoke after taking to social media following last Wednesday’s event at the school with posts including: “Where are ALL of the Christian teachers and former Berkeleyites on this idolatry?”

Dr Seaman ran into a storm of criticism on social media as a result of her statements, which the leader of Bermuda muslims said were clearly bigoted and “sounded Islamophobic”.

In an online sermon entitled “Lambs being led to the slaughter via the school gates”, Dr Seaman said this weekend that she was “disappointed people think I have dislike or hatred towards people”.

“I have taught for 20 years, and I want to say that some of the most well behaved, brilliant and wonderful students I have had have been Muslim.”

But she insisted the school’s leadership had “erred” in allowing the event to go ahead – and that she had been speaking from her concerns as a Christian.

“If you are not Christian, if you’re of a different religion, you probably are going to have an attitude and a problem with me,” she said. “I understand that. I feel your commitment to your commitment. However, it’s not my commitment.”

Dr Seaman said the event, in which members of the Muslim community came to Berkeley to demonstrate to students how the hijab was worn, was not in keeping with the foundation of the Berkeley Institute.

She added: “I believe that it was an error, a grave error, for another spirit to have been allowed to demonstrate to impressionable teens” something that was “not supportive of the foundation of the Berkeley Institute” – which Dr Seaman maintained was one of Christianity.

She said that “with their eye off their foundation, that’s an idol”.

The pastor, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in the 2020 General Election, was a vocal opponent on religious grounds of the 2016 debate over allowing same-sex marriage in Bermuda.

Her series of Facebook posts sparked a stream of online criticism with people accusing her of being “full of hate”.

The Berkeley Institute Board of Governors rejected Dr Seaman’s claims, saying the school has been founded 125 years ago to provide “a better education to students, irrespective of gender, race or creed”.

A statement from the board said the school “is immensely proud of the increasingly diverse tapestry of our student population tutored by a strong leadership team and a highly professional and dedicated corps of teachers”.

It added: “On the occasion of World Hijab Day, the Berkeley Institute hosted a recognition of the day and its significance to the Muslim community. This allowed students that chose to participate to learn of the hijab and what it represents.

“We endeavour to offer various educational experiences and also allow our students to learn of and appreciate different cultures, traditions and ways of thinking, while also providing for healthy and respectful debate. We encourage constructive freedom of speech and association on our campus and by extension support the same in our community.”

On Friday, Imam Saleem Talbot of the Bermuda Islamic Cultural Centre said that he was “disappointed” to hear Dr Seaman’s comments.

He added that, while he did not know if Dr Seaman intended to be Islamophobic, her comments certainly came off as such.

Imam Talbot said: “Her comments were certainly bigoted. I don’t know if they were Islamophobic, but they certainly sounded Islamophobic.”

He added: “At the end of the day, as a faith leader my goal is to spread peace among people.

“But I didn’t see that from these remarks – it seemed to be extraordinarily divisive, unprofessional and not helpful to anybody.

“I know this person, and I’m very surprised to hear these comments. I think she did a disservice to herself and her community of people.”

Imam Talbot said that he was initially “quite happy” to hear that Berkeley was celebrating World Hijab Day, which he described as a day of cultural exchange.

He added that, while he was no stranger to bigotry, he did not expect to hear any backlash over the event.

He said: “If young people are getting together to talk about good things, then they should be allowed to do that and encouraged to do that.”

He added: “Berkeley is a high school with many students from diverse backgrounds.

“We need to celebrate diversity in our community in Bermuda – diversity in race, diversity in religion, diversity in nationality – and getting to know each other is good.”

Despite the comments, Imam Talbot said that Dr Seaman’s opinion was not the norm, particularly among faith leaders.

He said: “I am quite familiar with sitting down with members of other faith communities – mostly Christians but some Jewish leaders – and I’ve never, ever encountered a problem in doing so.

“These were actual faith leaders, not somebody on the fringes just speaking off the top of their heads.

“These are people who have studied not just their own faith but other faiths, so when they speak, they speak based on knowledge, not based on any sort of bias or emotional prejudice.”

Imam Talbot added: “As far as I know, Berkeley is not a religious school so there’s no reason for that pushback.

“I pray that she will think differently in the near future.”

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