Muslim students in Montreal denied prayer rooms

Montreal Muslim engineering students denied prayer rooms, take issue to Quebec Human Rights Commission

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, Muslim students will have to pray in cramped stairwells at two Montreal engineering schools because the institutions won't rent space to let them practise their faith.

The post-secondary schools say they are secular institutions and do not need to accommodate religious practices.

Farid Ghanem, a former student at l' Ecole de Technologie Superieure, and more than 100 other Muslim students have taken the Montreal engineering school to the Quebec Human Rights Commission for failing to provide the students with a place to pray.

Their faith requires Muslims to pray five times a day, facing in the direction of the holy city of Mecca.

An extra prayer is added during Ramadan, when believers concentrate more on their faith life and less on the concerns of the outside world, and are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours.

The human rights commission is expected to rule on the issue in the next few weeks.

Its decision is likely to attract a lot of attention, given that Islam is Canada's fastest-growing religion and the largest non-Christian faith in Quebec.

The dispute has been dragging on for two years.

Partly as a result of not being allowed to rent space for devotions, Ghanem became fed up with l'Ecole de Technologie and dropped out to do his PhD elsewhere.

"We felt that we were not accepted here and it was hostile," said Ghanem.

A second engineering school in Montreal has taken the same position as Ghanem's former school on Muslim religious practice. The Ecole Polytechnique is not offering its Muslim students a special prayer room.

"We are a secular institution and our mission doesn't include religion. It's education and research, " said Chantal Cantin, the school's communications director.

Cantin also said the Polytechnique is short on space.

Montreal human rights activist Fo Niemi doesn't buy the argument about secularism.

"Being secular doesn't mean one has to ban means our institution shall have no official religion," he said.

Niemi said other universities are providing prayer rooms, but he's still worried by what he sees as religious intolerance within Quebec's educational system.