Jewish and Muslim leaders bring 'conversation of peace' to anti-racism forum

Last year, when a mosque in Victoria, Texas was burned down in an alleged hate crime, a nearby synagogue opened its doors to give the Muslim community a place to pray.

Dr. Gary Branfman gave synagogue keys to Omar Rachid's congregation after Texas mosque was destroyed

Security officials investigate the aftermath of the fire at the Victoria Islamic Center mosque in Victoria, Texas, in January 2017. (Mohammad Khursheed/REUTERS)

It was a small act of kindness that drew international attention.

Last year, when a mosque in Victoria, Texas was burned down in an alleged hate crime, a nearby synagogue opened its doors to give the Muslim community a place to pray.

The story made headlines around the world — and now two men at the centre of the story are spreading their "conversation of peace" beyond their home city.

Omar Rachid, who lost his place of worship in the January 2017 fire, and Dr. Gary Branfman, who offered to share his, are in Vancouver this week to speak at an anti-racism forum to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

'I gave him a hug and offered him the keys'

Rachid, a leader of the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas, described what it felt like to see his mosque destroyed.

"It was truly devastating — every time I talk about it, I get a bit emotional," Rachid said. "It almost serves as an eviction notice from the entire community to the congregation."

People need to realize how hurtful an act like that can be, Rachid told Stephen Quinn, host of The Early Edition.  

The Victoria Islamic Center mosque in Victoria, Texas was gutted by flames in a fire on Jan. 28, 2017, in an alleged hate crime. (Barclay Fernandez/The Victoria Advocate/AP)

For Branfman, a board member at the Temple B'nai Israel in Texas, there was no questioning what was the right course of action to take.

As soon as he saw the mosque burning, less than a kilometre from his house, he went over to the person in charge of the Islamic Centre.

"I gave him a hug and offered him the keys," Branfman said.

"It's kind of interesting and surprising to me that I received such notoriety for just doing what a human being should do in this situation."

Misconception of differences

Branfman said the reaction to the event points to a common misconception that people who are different — whether by religion, race, sexual orientation or any other way — are not expected to co-exist peacefully.

He hopes to help break this perception at the forum.

"Sadly, it shows how low the bar has been set if that's all it takes to get interviewed from San Diego to Israel on this sort of an issue," he said.

"The situation that we are showing is that this is, or at least should be, the norm."

Rachid said he hopes stories like the this will affect peacemaking efforts far beyond his own community.

"Racism and hate crime, it seems to be prevalent these days," he said.

"If Gary and I can contribute to the conversation of peace, remove the politicians from the equation, I think peace can certainly be achieved."

Rachid and Branfman are giving a talk on Wednesday, March 21, at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Richmond. 

Muslim whose mosque was destroyed in hate crime and Jew who gave keys to synagogue want their story to help peace efforts. 10:18

With files from The Early Edition