Friday, February 21, 2003

Minister battles military over faith: Jewish group joins Pentecostal in bid to diversify chaplaincy

Minister battles military over faith: Jewish group joins Pentecostal in bid to diversify chaplaincy

Tom Blackwell
National Post

21 February 2003
National Post

Religious services in the Canadian forces are controlled exclusively by a few major Christian churches, discriminating against other faiths and minority Christian sects, a Pentecostal minister has charged in a human rights complaint.

The forces have 29 Anglican chaplains -- eight times the percentage of Anglicans in the general population -- but no Jews, Hindus or Muslims, Reverend Sheldon Johnston notes in his complaint.

The 35-year-old from Castlegar, B.C., is getting support from a major Jewish group, which says the Department of National Defence must better represent Canada's spiritual mosaic.

"What we have right now is a handful of religious groups that are judging other groups and saying that they are not worthy to be represented, which I think is wrong," Rev. Johnston said.

"I think it has a huge impact on minority groups. This is a primary reason why there isn't that much diversity."

Religions are supposed to be represented in the military chaplaincy based on the number of troops who declare themselves to be members of those churches.

But Rev. Johnston said the declarations may not accurately reflect the makeup of the army, navy and air force.

A Defence spokesman admitted yesterday the unit does not represent modern Canada and said officials are working on the problem, starting with the recruitment of the forces' first Muslim chaplain.

Imam Suleyman Demiray, a native of Turkey, is expected to get into basic training this fall.

"We know right now that we are not reflective of Canadian society, so we've got a lot of work to do and it's going to take some time," said Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Kettle, a chaplaincy spokesman.

Rev. Johnston, of the Church of God Canada, said the forces must go further and end for good their practice of having quotas for the number of chaplains from different Christian churches.

The chaplains' mission is broad: to bolster "operational effectiveness" by contributing to the moral and spiritual well-being of troops and their families.

The unit, with 144 regular force chaplains, is divided into two services: Catholic and Protestant.

According to figures Rev. Johnston obtained from the Defence Department, just under half are Catholic, 19% are Anglican, 11% are United Church and 4.4% are evangelical.

Catholics make up 41% of the general population, Anglicans -- 2.4%, United Church members -- 5.4% and evangelicals -- 9.5%. Non-Christian religions comprise 26% of Canadians, according to the figures.

Rev. Johnston said he has tried more than once to become a chaplain himself, but was effectively rejected because there were already three Pentecostals: the quota allotted the denomination.

He said Canada should adopt the system used in the United States, where an independent panel chooses chaplains based on their potential as spiritual advisors and officers, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has told him that it was unable to mediate a resolution to the dispute, and plans to refer it to a human rights tribunal for trial, he said.

B'Nai Brith, the Jewish human rights organization, backs his crusade and is considering a formal intervention, said Anita Bromberg, a spokeswoman.

"The life of a soldier is a tough life," she said. "Not having access to the appropriate [religious] support mechanisms can make the life certainly more difficult."