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Prayer initiative left non-Christians ‘feeling excluded’

A national gathering of prayer on the steps of City hall lacked inclusiveness, according to the managing director of the Centre for Justice.

“Bermuda is a community that comprises many different faiths and spiritual traditions,” Venous Memari said. “Every person in Bermuda is entitled to the fundamental right to hold and practise their religious belief. But, Bermuda is also home to many who abide by no faith at all, and their rights are also protected by the Constitution and laws of Bermuda.”

The Centre’s primary concern, she continued, was the “lack of inclusiveness” at the event, last Thursday.

“The event appeared to have a particularly Christian tenor: the event only featured individuals from different Christian denominations, its steering committee comprises overwhelmingly of Christian officials, and Biblical passages were exclusively referenced throughout the service and its printed programme.

“The presence of the Premier and Opposition Leader, together with the forceful statements made by the Premier and the use of tax dollars to facilitate the event, suggest a state endorsement of the Christian tradition to the exclusion of all others. We accept that this was likely unintentional.

“Unfortunately, this would lead some, such as our Jewish, Islamic and secular brothers and sisters, to feel excluded by the leaders of their country.

“Centre for Justice has no problem with government supported interfaith events that make no explicit or implicit endorsement of any religious or spiritual tradition. Such events should also include active participation by those who abide by no faith.”

Hundreds of people joined church leaders, members of the City Council, Premier Craig Cannonier, Opposition leader Marc Bean, and other dignitaries, in front of City Hall on Thursday afternoon to pray for the country.

The event was the culmination of an initiative, Bermuda Prays, intended to unite the country through prayer. It had been instigated by the Premier who met with church leaders to share his vision for a spiritual reawaken of the country.

Jonathan Starling, an independent candidate in last year’s general election, criticised the initiative for blurring the line between church and state.

“Religious individuals have a right to attend religious gatherings, but our elected officials should only attend these in their private capacity, rather than blurring the line between spirituality and State privileging of one religion over another,” Mr Starling said last week.

Premier Craig Cannonier confirmed that taxpayer dollars were spent on the initiative, but rejected criticism that it represented an unhealthy mix of religion and politics.

“I don’t think there was an unhealthy mix. This is just another part of my efforts to bring people together,” he said on Friday.

“Trying to bring different denominations together is even tougher than bringing politicians together at times. But we were successful in being able to raise the awareness that they have a role in the future of this country. That’s the awareness that I, as the Premier of this country, was bringing to the table.

“I am fully aware of its role in the moral fibre of this country. The conflict between church and state will continue to be a fine line. I don’t believe in any form or fashion that we stepped over the line. This was simply about bringing people together. It was a huge success, and I’m grateful that they were able to put their differences aside as denominations and come together for the common good.”

He said while he supported the principle of separation of church and state “we cannot avoid the fact that churches are a part of our fibre and, by nature, they will always be a part of politics”.

As to the point that the state was effectively endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths or non-believers, Mr Cannonier said: “It’s very much like having a national football team or a national cricket team. You’ve got different facets that make up our sporting arena. What makes up our political arena here are Christians, people who are spiritual, who are Jewish or Muslims.” But he was quick to say that while he supported the initiative he did not organise it.

“Everyone has an opportunity and I will continue to work with those (other) organisations as well.”

Bermuda Prays: The initiative lacked inclusiveness, claims the Centre for Justice (Photo by Glenn Tucker)

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Published May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 19, 2013 at 11:10 pm)

Prayer initiative left non-Christians ‘feeling excluded’

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