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'Our reaction is very important:' Mosque, rabbi unite to condemn hateful attacks

After a man allegedly called a group of Muslims "terrorists" before nearly striking them with a boulder outside a Toronto area mosque where kids and adults were gathered to pray, a rabbi sent a message to the worshippers to express sympathy. People attend prayers at the Toronto Islamic Centre on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marta Iwanek

TORONTO — After a man allegedly yelled slurs and threw a rock at Muslims standing outside a Toronto mosque last week, a local rabbi felt the need to send over a message expressing sympathy. 

Rabbi Shaanan Scherer said it was important for him to contact the Toronto Islamic Centre and speak up against the attack, particularly as the Israel-Hamas war has led to a rise in aggression and violence against Muslim and Jewish communities across Canada. 

"I was just disgusted that somebody would attack innocent Muslims who are citizens here in Toronto," said Scherer, who teaches at a local Jewish school that has also been the subject of two bomb threats in recent days.

"Despite political differences ... it's about people of faith wanting to practice religion without being discriminated against here in Canada. And we can agree on putting an end to any forms of hatred."

Police arrested and charged a 28-year-old man in the incident outside the mosque. Investigators charged the same man in separate attacks on a Muslim taxi driver and a woman wearing a hijab, where both victims were allegedly sprayed in the face with an unknown substance. 

The city has also seen several cases of antisemitism, including businesses that have been targeted. 

"We can't really function so normally right now, because of this instability and the hatred that's here in Toronto as well," Scherer said.

Shaffni Nalir, the general manager of the Toronto Islamic Centre, said Scherer's support and the messages of unity he's received from other rabbis, imams, church leaders and community members have meant a lot as tensions rise amid the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. 

"I specifically can't stop what's going on in the world but we can react to it and our reaction is very important," the 32-year-old said.

"We need to stand up for justice, irrespective of who is the one committing the crime." 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia "really scary."

"People are forgetting a little bit that we're a country that protects the freedom of expression, that protects liberty of conscience, that respects and supports people even when we disagree with them,'' he said in Ottawa.

Across Canada, various police forces have said they have increased their presence around religious institutions in response to the spike in violence.

In Montreal, gunshots were fired at two Jewish schools and a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue, all in a one-week period. 

In Toronto, the police chief said Thursday that there had been a "staggering" increase in hate crime reports in the city since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The force said that between Oct. 7 and Nov. 20, there had been 38 reports of antisemitic hate crimes, compared to 13 during the same period last year, and 17 anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab hate crime reports, compared to one during the same time last year. 

Nalir, at the Toronto Islamic Centre, said his mosque had been subject to various other acts of aggression since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7  – people have banged on the windows while walking by, the exterior has been vandalized, the mosque's email inbox has been flooded with hateful messages.

People have also walked into the building and called worshippers terrorists while they were praying and children were playing nearby, Nalir said. 

"It's very sad. Muslims have been called terrorists for so long that I'm not surprised anymore," Nalir said, adding that reporting every case to police in recent weeks has been exhausting.

Rabbi Ed Elkin, president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader at Toronto’s First Narayever Congregation, said the Israel-Hamas war has also exposed the challenges of interfaith relationships when it comes to the conflict in the Middle East. 

He called fostering close interfaith ties "the right thing to do, because we, like everybody else, we need friends and allies."

"We need to be there for them and we would hope that they would be there for us in our difficult times and this one has been tough because it's just so fraught," he said. 

"Anything to do with Israel and Palestine is seemingly radioactive ... People just find it really confusing, even well-meaning people don't know what to say."

Worshippers at the Toronto Islamic Centre, as well as members of Scherer's congregation in Toronto, are feeling the strain of the conflict overseas, Nalir and the rabbi said. 

"We're hearing that people are nervous, anxious," Nalir said.

"A lot of it is psychological," Scherer added. "They want to terrorize our psyche. And so there are many people who it's working on and they're feeling scared." 

Nalir said some have expressed doubts about whether they should continue going to a place of worship to pray. He said he has encouraged them to keep attending their places of worship – be it a mosque, church or synagogue – to send a message that hate is not tolerated. 

"Since we've made a call for more people to attend, we've seen more people attend the last few days and we want it to stay that way," he said. "Sometimes, you know, there is strength in numbers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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