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Columbia Tribune-Faith tribunal ban angers Canadians

Muslim law hurts women, activists argue.

Published Thursday, September 15, 2005

TORONTO (AP) - Jews and Muslims in Ontario pledged yesterday to fight for faith-based tribunals to settle family disputes after its premier stunned their communities by announcing he would ban all religious arbitration in Canada’s largest province.

Ontario had appeared well on its way to becoming the first Western jurisdiction to allow the use of Sharia - a code of laws drawn largely from the Islamic holy book, the Quran - to settle some Muslim family and civil disputes.

The province has allowed Catholic and Jewish tribunals to settle family law matters on a voluntary basis since the adoption of the Arbitration Act in 1991.

The practice got little attention until some proponents of Sharia demanded the same rights.

Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, said yesterday that Premier Dalton McGuinty’s surprise announcement on Sunday to scrap the tribunals was unfair.

Dimant said B’nai Brith is considering a constitutional challenge if Ontario no longer recognizes rabbinical courts to grant divorces and monetary disputes.

"In the case of the rabbinical courts, they have functioned for hundreds of years in Ontario, and there have been no issues, no complaints," Dimant said. "And now to merely outlaw them ... because of internal differences of opinion in the Muslim community is simply unfair."

Ontario’s government had been reviewing a report by a former provincial attorney general that recommends Sharia arbitration be included under the act.

On Sunday, McGuinty said religious arbitrations "threaten our common ground" and promised his Liberal Party government would soon introduce legislation to outlaw them in Ontario. "Ontarians will always have the right to seek advice from anyone in matters of family law, including religious advice," he told The Canadian Press. "But no longer will religious arbitration be deciding matters of family law."

Opponents of Sharia were thrilled by McGuinty’s decision.

"I think our voice got heard loud and clear," said Homa Arjomand, a women’s rights activist who organized a series of anti-Sharia protests worldwide last Thursday.

Anti-Sharia critics have said the country’s 750,000 Muslims come from different backgrounds and strains of Islam and that women are not treated equally under the system, which they say runs counter to the Charter of Rights and Freedom, Canada’s bill of rights.

Under most interpretations of Islamic law, women cannot initiate divorce. The Quran allows for polygamy, and Sharia often permits marriage of girls younger than most secular laws, as do some other religions and cultures.



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