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Content Warning: This article makes mention of Islamophobic violence.
“Religion” invokes many sentiments and associations, some of which may include “spirituality”, “beliefs”, “devout”, but one word that is rarely associated with religion is “harmony”. With an estimated 4300 religions in the world, there can be many conflicting views that are a source of tension among populations. However, three of the world’s most widely practiced religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, all share similar origins and scripture, and claim the prophet Abraham as their forefather, earning them the classification of Abrahamic religions. Through conversation, followers of these faiths are able to forge connections in their similarities and delve into curiosity and an appreciation and respect for their differences. One such organization igniting these forward-thinking dialogues can be found right here in the Peterborough-Nogojiwanong area.
The Abraham Festival, established in 2003 by three women from these 3 respective Abrahamic religions, defines itself as “an interfaith group that believes in acceptance reaching far beyond mere tolerance.” The organization, who host an annual themed Abraham Festival with supplementary events (this year virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic), strive to “demystify ‘the other’, while encouraging acceptance of our differences.” Unlike other groups that are born out of tragic events such as 9/11, the Abraham festival prides itself on coming from a place of, and championing, positivity. This article will explore the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on this festival and the importance of faith when facing unprecedented, challenging times when, for many, hope and positivity have been dwindling.
One of the Abraham Festival’s co-founders and Vice-Chair, Elizabeth Rahman, was willing to speak with us at the Arthur to describe the importance of this festival. Referencing their community’s supportive response to anti-Islamic acts in Canada’s past; such as the firebombing of Peterborough’s Masjid Al-Salaam in 2015 and the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, Rahman highlights the most gratifying act in their festival as not standing together in solidarity against acts of Islamophobia, but the conversations that take place over their potluck lunch. Rahman explains; “seeing people of diverse faiths sitting at one table talking, perhaps explaining the dish they brought, or learning about someone else’s faith...people feel at ease in asking - and answering! - questions they might not be able to ask in everyday situations”. It is through these connections, in an informal environment with conversations born out of a place of eager positive curiosity, that meaningful friendships are born.
This friendly approach to a topic as sensitive as religion has proven effective in creating a supportive inclusive community, which is open to individuals of all faiths. Rahman specifically references First Nations peoples, in acknowledging they are meeting on First Nations land, as well as their recognition that some faith groups have exploited the First Nations. When asked if criticism or any issues arise, Rahman emphasized the principles on which the festival was founded; support and respect. She also reiterates the position of the officials running the festival, stating:
“Our festival is totally grass roots, run by adherents of each faith rather than by faith leaders. So we are not compelled to conform to religious edicts from faith leaders, but rather we listen to our own conscience and to each other. However, we have the support of many faith leaders. If something might be offensive to anyone, we immediately take steps to remedy the situation. We do not debate theology, but we do discuss events that hurt one section of our Abraham family, as what hurts one of us hurts us all.”
The organization’s commitment to solidarity and support for one another, regardless of their religious beliefs and identity, is admirable. However, the ability to maintain this connection and celebration is something that was no doubt made much more difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite having to cancel the 2020 festival, the organization has remained committed and steadfast in their mission, and has hosted three Zoom events since May 2020. The first event, Rahman explained, “had an imam, a United Church minister and a Jewish leader reading a verse from their scriptures that meant a lot to them, which led to a discussion among the panel and attendees”. The second event, a youth forum, addressed challenges that a panel of youth faced this year and the role their faith/religious community played in supporting them. The third event, entitled Compassion: How Little We Know...So Much to Learn had participants watch a video by Karen Armstrong on empathy and compassion and participate in a facilitated group discussion to share and consolidate participants’ understanding.
This series of online events has had positive reception, both in the Peterborough community and beyond. Rahman referenced participants of varying ages from India, Germany, and England, as well as other Canadian cities. While these events were not intended to replace the in-person Abraham festival, which Rahman hopes to be able to resume in 2021, they succeeded in their goal of uniting participants in a time of need. When asked about the implications that COVID-19 and the transition to virtual services has had on individuals, Rahman explained that there were technological challenges to overcome, especially for the older festival attendees who are not as familiar with and proficient in technology. However, Rahman asserts the importance of offering these Zoom events to encourage the conversation about religion and life with individuals struggling not being able to attend their place of worship. Rahman states that for many individuals, they “are happy to join our Zoom events to keep in touch with others.”
While a 2021 Abraham Festival is in the works, Rahman acknowledges the uncertainty of these times and that plans may be altered. In the meantime, the organization will continue hosting more Zoom events and conversations to bring the Abraham Festival family, and others, together in the hopes of supporting and learning from one another, both in the context of religion and beyond.
If you are interested in learning more about the Abraham Festival, feel free to visit their website at https://abrahamfestival.org/.