'Sorry that freedom of religion offended': Quebec zoo fends off criticism for allowing Muslim prayers

Parc Safari is defending a group of Muslims after a video posted on social media criticized them for holding prayers on the grounds of the Hemmingford, Que., zoo.

Parc Safari goes on offensive after video of people praying during trip to zoo goes viral and draws criticism

Parc Safari criticism over a Muslim group that was filmed praying in a public section of the zoo won't change its policy of inclusiveness and openness to all religions. (Parc Safari)

Parc Safari is defending itself and a group of Muslims after a video posted on social media criticized them for holding prayers on the grounds of the zoo in Hemmingford, Quebec.

The Facebook video posted Sunday shows the group observing one of five daily calls to prayer at the zoo about 60 kilometres south of Montreal.

The video's caption, translated from French, says, "I find it inappropriate that at Parc Safari on a Sunday afternoon we hear prayers on the speakers. Can you just do this in your living room and not impose it on me please!"

Two women speaking in French on the video are heard saying that Quebecers are too conciliatory and that people should not be praying in public.

By Wednesday, the video had been shared on social media more than 1,400 times and had more than 100,000 views.

'Sorry that freedom of religion offended'

Véronique Ranger, a Parc Safari spokesperson, said the Muslim association members followed all the park's rules, including bringing their own speakers and not using the park's sound system.

Ranger said zoo visitors were offended even though the group didn't solicit other visitors, wasn't disrupting other guests or animals, and didn't block any paths.

"Parc Safari is sorry that freedom of religion has offended some people," Ranger said.

In an interview with CBC Montreal on Wednesday morning, zoo owner Jean-Pierre Ranger said the video takes what really happened "totally out of context," and called the whole situation "ridiculous."

"Somebody takes a video of an incident that lasted a few seconds," he said, adding that other faith groups have used the park over the years without sparking outrage.

"Quebec is a peaceful land built by immigrants for hundreds of years. Tolerance is what we have come to accept."

Jean-Pierre Ranger said he has been operating the zoo for 45 years and the criticism won't change how he runs his business.

"I'm very proud of what Parc Safari stands for and nobody is going to tell us how to behave, whether they're Muslim or any other faith, or those do-gooders that think they can run the world."

The criticism that the zoo has faced pales compared to the support he has been receiving in response to the video, Ranger said. 

"It indicates that people can think on their own as to the real consequences and meaning of certain situations and aren't duped by what it is people are trying to make a fuss of."

1,000 comments, and counting

Those divergent opinions are on full display on Parc Safari's Facebook page, where the zoo published a lengthy post explaining what happened and challenging its critics.

The post has attracted more than 1,000 comments. 

"Prayer sites are one thing and attractions are another," posted Luc Richard.

Another post called for a boycott of the zoo.

"I hope you go bankrupt pure and simple," wrote Patrice Lafond.

Others applauded the zoo's stand.

"Please be certain, Parc Safari, that I will be returning to visit as soon as I can make it back there and your non-discrimination against this Muslim group has only strengthened my resolve. Well done," wrote Steve Craig.

" I am moved beyond words that an organization such as yours is standing up for what is right, in light of the recent [I]slamophobia that has infected our society. Congratulations Parc Safari!" wrote Kia Nicolaou. 

Parc Safari said in a news release that despite the backlash, the park remains committed to being an inclusive space where everyone is welcome regardless of religion, nationality, skin colour, culture or sexual orientation.

With files from Elysha Enos and CBC Montreal's Daybreak