Sep. 3rd, 2006

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St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican Church, located at 104 Bellevue Avenue on College Street directly between Toronto's Little Italy and Kensington Market neighbourhoods, is threatened.

St. Stephen's-in-the-Fields Anglican Church, a superb example of mid nineteenth century Gothic architecture, is threatened. Local parish is loosing money and the Anglican diocese, which owns the building is not interested in entering into a heritage easement agreement with the city. St. Stephen’s was built in 1858. Its stained glass windows are among the finest in the city. However, it is not only a wonderful building; it is a force for good, looking after its parishioners and many others in the community. Like many St. Stephen's is one of the many downtown churches that have embraced the mission of caring for the hungry, the naked and the poor. It has services in English, Spanish and French for Caribbean, Latino and African congregations.

A while back, The Anglican diocese offered to loan the parish funds to cover the wages of a priest. Over the years a debt of $400,000 built up. Recently the diocese asked for repayment and the congregation worked out a 15-year repayment schedule. For a time the diocese went along with this plan, but recently it issued an order to vacate. The diocese wants the building back. A group, The Friends of St. Stephen's, has formed to endeavour to preserve this church and its congregation. They deserve support.

Prominently displayed signs on the church property facing both Bellevue and College offer the property for rent, for marriages and parties and similar events. The tension with the Church hierarchy is, so far as I know, ongoing.

The boyfriend and I stopped off there this afternoon, coming back from a street festival in Little Italy. One of the priests caught us as we were coming in, towards the end of the afternoon Spanish-language service but telling us that we could go in, just to be quiet. Smoke and incense in the air about the altar, a plain area for parishoners facing a beautiful stone hall, the church felt holy to me.
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As Ali Sultan observes in the washington Post ("Muslim Group Offended by Mercury Party"), a plan in Zanzibar to celebrate the life of Queen's Freddie Mercury on what would have been his 60th birthday has run aground on the island's new homophobia.

A Muslim leader has criticized plans to honor late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury with a huge beach party this weekend.

Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991, violated Islam with his flamboyant lifestyle, said Azan Khalid of Zanzibar's Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propagation.

Khalid said anything linking Mercury with Zanzibar's Muslim population would be offensive and that a waterfront restaurant's plans for a party Saturday honoring Mercury's birthday must be stopped.

Simai Mohammed, manager of the Mercury restaurant, which was named for the singer, said the party would go on as scheduled. Mercury would have been 60 on Sept. 5.

Mercury, who acknowledged being gay, was born in Zanzibar when the country was still a British protectorate. He was educated in India and moved with his family to Britain in the early 1960s, after a bloody revolution that drove out many immigrants of Indian or Arab descent.

"Our main idea is to promote tourism and Freddie Mercury was from Zanzibar. It's part of our history," Mohammed said. "We are all Muslims and it's not our intention to offend any religion."

Last year some 500,000 tourists traveled to Zanzibar, bringing vital foreign currency to the Indian Ocean island. This semiautonomous part of Tanzania is mostly Muslim.

Mercury was born into a Zoroastrian family that was part of the Parsi diaspora, itself a component of the large non-African communities on Zanzibar that have often found themselves violently opposed to the African majority, so issues of class may well be at play here. A much more important factor is the ongoing institutionalization of homophobia in Zanzibar life.

[L]egislators passed a bill bringing in stiffer penalties for gay sex, a sign that a mood of conservatism may be creeping over the traditionally tolerant island. As in most African societies, homosexuals in Zanzibar have been regarded with disapproval and scorn, but until recently there was a willingness on the island to turn a blind eye to discreet gay relationships.

Although, contrary to earlier press reports men convicted of gay sex will not risk being jailed for life, the crackdown has caused dismay among members of the gay community.

Once the new law is approved by the island's president, Amani Karume, gay sex acts will be punishable by up to five years in prison, while gay partners who celebrate a "marriage" will face up to seven years' behind bars.

Homosexuality was already illegal, but the penalties were toughened after two gay men outraged conservative opinion by publicly celebrating their "marriage" at one of the island's hotels last year.

This, in turn, seems to be part of a larger trend towards the institutionalization of homophobia in many Islamic countries using Islamic language. Regardless of the actual reason for last year's executions in Iran (1, 2), the existence of murderously anti-gay laws founded on ostensibly Islamic grounds isn't. Yet another sign of the marvellous success of American-led nation-building in Iraq is a spree of homophobic murders is going on in that country even as I type. The list goes on.

I can well appreciate that the homophobia that increasingly characterizes Islamist political movements is drawn, at least in part, from the homophobia that Victorian Britain brought to its colonies. I can even go so far as to suggest that homophobia is itself a sign of progress, that it's a sentiment that wouldn't need to be articulated in law and popular custom if it wasn't threatened by social changes, that in a generation's time reaction will have exhausted itself. I just feel pity for the poor people who are trapped in these territories and lack the connection and the capital that they'd need to escape or to make a life for themselves. Globalization's hardly complete.
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