By Ron Csillag
Religion News Service
TORONTO (RNS) A majority-Muslim public school in Toronto is defending its policy of allowing an imam to lead Friday prayers in the cafeteria, saying students who leave school for prayers at a mosque typically don't return to school.
For the past three years, some 300 Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School have been allowed to use the school cafeteria for Friday prayers. Before the policy change, school officials say students would leave classes early and not return.
"I think it's important to note the prayer isn't conducted under the auspices of the board," Jim Spyropoulos, a superintendent for inclusive schools with the Toronto District School Board, told the Globe and Mail newspaper. "This was the best solution that avoided compromising instructional time."
The issue is "about religious accommodation," Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a school district spokeswoman, told The Canadian Press.
Those explanations have not placated angry parents, who are lighting up radio call-in shows and blogging furiously about alleged favoritism toward Islam. Christian and other prayers are disallowed in the public school system.
In an unlikely alliance, Canadian Hindu Advocacy, the Jewish Defense League and the Muslim Canadian Congress have voiced strong opposition to the arrangement.
Islamic groups are "imposing their view" to "spread their ideology," Ron Banerjee, director of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, told the Globe and Mail.
The Muslim Canadian Congress has asked for the services to be halted or closely monitored to avert the spread of radicalism.
The board noted that there have been no complaints about the arrangement until it was highlighted recently by a right-wing blogger.