Jews, Muslims to Seek Tribunals in Canada

Toronto, Canada - Jews and Muslims in Ontario pledged Wednesday 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 appeared well on its way to becoming the first Western jurisdiction to allow the use of Sharia, an ancient set of Islamic rules, to settle some Muslim family disputes.

The province has allowed Catholic and Jewish tribunals to settle family law matters on a voluntary basis since 1991. The practice got little attention until Muslim leaders demanded the same rights.

Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B'nai Brith Canada, said Wednesday that Premier Dalton McGuinty's surprise announcement on Sunday to scrap the tribunals was unfair and B'nai Brith is considering a constitutional challenge if Jews are forbidden from using rabbinical courts to grant divorces and other family matters.

"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 as having any standing before the law, because of internal differences of opinion in the Muslim community, is simply unfair."

Ontario's government has been reviewing a report by the former provincial attorney general which recommends Sharia be allowed. Officials had been debating whether to exclude one religion, or scrap the religious family courts altogether.

On Sunday, McGuinty stunned supporters and opponents alike by choosing the latter.

"I've come to the conclusion that the debate has gone on long enough," he told The Canadian Press. "There will be no Shariah law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians."

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 said. "But no longer will religious arbitration be deciding matters of family law."

McGuinty has not clarified his statement — which has caused an outpouring of joy, confusion and anger — and did not return calls to his office.

Opponents of Sharia were thrilled, however, claiming McGuinty's decision as a victory.

"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 Sept. 8.

Opponents of Sharia law 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 runs counter to the Charter of Rights and Freedom, Canada's bill of rights.

Under most interpretations of Islamic law, women's rights to seek divorce are strictly limited and they only receive half the inheritance of men. Sharia also allows for polygamy and often permits marriage of girls at a younger age than does secular law.

The McGuinty government for seven months had been sitting on a report by former Ontario Attorney-General Marion Boyd, which concluded that Muslims should have the same rights as other religions that use faith-based arbitration to settle family disputes.

Boyd concluded in her report that there was no evidence women were being discriminated against in faith-based arbitration by Jews and Catholics and recommended the province's existing arbitration system be strengthened.

The Toronto-based Canadian Islamic Congress has accused opponents of Sharia of fear-mongering tactics. They said Sharia was cheaper, faster and introduced a "healing factor into many family disputes."

Mohamed Elmasry, the group's president, said Muslims were seeking equality with Jews to have their arbitration process formally recognized by the courts.

"It is ignorance which has given Sharia a bad name, especially in the treatment of women," his organization said. "It is time to reclaim the truth of such terms instead of using them as blunt weapons to manipulate people."