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Maritime Muslim chaplain calls prison cuts a 'fatwa'

10/09/2012 09:19 EDT | Updated 12/09/2012 05:12 EST
One of three Muslim spiritual leaders who used to visit prisoners in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia says he's upset the federal government will only pay for Christian spiritual leaders from now on.

CBC News learned last week that the federal government is cancelling the contracts of non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons.

Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance.

The cancellations will take effect by the end of March.

Zia Khan is an imam and the director of the Centre for Islamic Development in Halifax.

He has visited about 70 inmates over the past two years; until the word came last week that their contracts will not be renewed.

"Last time we went, we said, 'See you in the beginning of October,' and all of a sudden, this fatwa, if you would call it, came down from the mountain," he said.

"It's an egregious violation of the charter, and I think people need to stand up and really say something because I think the country is starting towards a wrong end."

Khan said the claim by federal cabinet minister Vic Toews that having Christian chaplains minister to all faiths is the fairest 'option is "hogwash."

But a spokesperson for Toews called the original report on the cuts to chaplains misleading.

"Last month, [Minister] Toews asked for an immediate review of the chaplaincy program to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and appropriately. Upon reviewing the program, it was determined that changes were necessary so that this program supports the freedom of religion of inmates while respecting taxpayer dollars," Julie Carmichael wrote in an email to CBC News Tuesday.

"Convicted criminals will continue to have access to religious services of their choice on a voluntary basis," Carmichael said. "The government funds some full-time chaplains that are determined based on the number of inmates requesting services from each faith. These chaplains will also make themselves available to provide services to the general population."

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