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September 27, 2001 Growing demand for prayer space



by Barbara Black

In a university that doesn’t have enough space for classrooms, it’s bound to be difficult to find space for prayers. For nearly 20 years, prayer space has been provided to Muslim students by the university for daily and Friday prayers.

However, the numbers of Muslim students have grown greatly over that time, due to a wave of immigration from Muslim countries.

There may be as many as 400,000 Montrealers of Middle Eastern origin, although only about 60 per cent are Muslim. In 1999, the president of the Students’ Association for Muslim Awareness (SAMA) said there were 8,000 Muslim students at Concordia, although others have said that estimate is too high. (There is no official tabulation of religious, ethnic or linguistic data on Concordia students.)

Like adherents to the world’s other major religions, some Muslims pray regularly and others don’t. However, the devout are called to prayer five times a day, which means that they must pray in the midst of their day-to-day activities. The main observance is communal prayer at midday on Friday.

By a historical anomaly, the only permanent place of worship at Concordia is the Roman Catholic chapel that was built in 1933 and was part of the original campus of Loyola College, which was run by the Society of Jesus.

However, by the 1970s, when Loyola merged with Sir George Williams University (whose 19th-century roots are evangelical Protestant), both schools were quite secularized. Campus Ministry not only became non-sectarian, embracing a broad range of spiritual expression, but it took on community issues, such as feeding needy students, visiting prisoners, counselling, and exploring social issues.

Campus Ministry has three full chaplains and an associate chaplain, all of them Christian, but there are a number of volunteer associate chaplains who supplement their work.
Particularly active are Myokoyo Judith McLean (Buddhist), John Tkachuk (Christian, Orthodox), T.S. Rukmani (Hindu), Rabbis David Merling and Shlomo Mahn (Jewish), Manjit Singh (Sikh), Ray Drennan (Christian, Unitarian) and Salam Elmenyawi, chairman of the Muslim Council of Montreal, who has acted as volunteer chaplain to Muslim students at Concordia.

In the early 1980s, a small group of Muslim students asked Campus Ministry for a prayer space. At the time, Campus Ministry was housed on the third floor of the Hall Building, and the Muslim students used the meeting room as a prayer room.

In 1988, Campus Ministry left the Hall Building and moved to the Z annex, at 2090 Mackay St. Peter Coté, the current coordinator, said, “We insisted that suitable facilities be built into renovations to continue the existence of the prayer room.” In fact, the university is under no obligation to provide religious facilities for any of its students, but “there never any question in our minds but that we should respond to this request.”

However, the numbers of users soon exceeded the limits of this space. “In 1995, we began to advocate with and on behalf of the MSA for better facilities for the Friday prayers.” With the help of the dean of students, the former Reggie’s on the sixth floor of the Hall Building was secured.

Last year, the then coordinator of Campus Ministry, Daryl Ross, saw an opportunity when the Women’s Centre vacated the P annex for renovations. This space, at 2020 Mackay St., is large enough to accommodate the men, and the usually smaller number of women will use the Z annex prayer room.

For Friday prayers, which draw several hundred worshippers, the university has offered use of a classroom belonging to the Department of Applied Human Sciences on the seventh floor (where Reggie’s used to be) from noon to 3 o’clock, guaranteed for three years. When a new student centre is built downtown, an open multi-faith space will be included in the design.