Niagara school board apologizes for Israel-only prayer, pledges ‘healing’

Saint Michael High School, Niagara Falls, Ont. (Markpigeault/Wikimedia Commons)

A prayer for Israel—but not for Palestinians—has prompted apologies and pledges of healing from the Niagara Catholic District School Board.

The morning prayer delivered to students at Saint Michael Catholic High School in Niagara Falls at the start of their remote learning day on May 20 “quite rightfully upset many in the school and Niagara community,” board chair Larry Huibers and education director Camillo Cipriano said in a joint apology late last month.

They said school chaplaincy leader Jolene Smith “sought to make the daily prayer relevant to an important world event.”

The prayer stated: “Loving God, we continue to pray for Israel. You have planned for Israel, provided for Israel and protected Israel for thousands of years. As in the past, there are those who seek to harm and even destroy your people. We ask you to keep Israel in your loving care. Watch over this nation as a Good Shepherd watches over his flock, and may your chosen people find their ultimate safety and security in you.”

There was no mention of Palestinians.

According to local reports, Smith prepared a video statement for students a few days later to apologize for her “lapse in judgment.”

The CJN requested, but did not receive, the text of the full apologies. Local reports stated the two board officials said Smith was “devastated at the thought that, in attempting to do good, she brought harm to the Saint Michael community.”

They said they hoped that a new prayer from Smith the next morning “will be a first step toward healing.”

The prayer’s emphasis on Israel, to the exclusion of Palestinians, unleashed harsh language at a petition on change.org, which aimed to “end (the board’s) in-class pro-Israel and pro-Zionist prayers.”

Resident Faten Darbaj, who started the petition, wrote at the site that “Zionism supports the ethnic cleansing, oppression, & murder of innocent human beings in Palestine. The school and school board should be held accountable. We ask that they issue a statement apologizing for any discomfort or unsafety they may have caused amongst their diverse student body & immediately put a stop to this in all NCDSB schools.”

The petition received 2,300 signatures.

“We share the concerns of the individual who created the petition, and those who have signed and shared it,” the board chair and education director wrote in their apology. “We will continue to begin and end our days in prayer, and assure you that those prayers will focus on inclusivity, community and the hope for a better tomorrow.”

Local reports said Smith and the school principal spoke with those “who were hurt and offended by the prayer throughout the weekend to express their regret.”

The emphasis was on “healing the harm caused by the use of the prayer, and ensuring that all students at Saint Michael Catholic High School know that they are loved, valued and important members of the Saint Michael community, that they are safe and respected at school, and that they truly feel that they belong.”

The school officials’ apology said Saint Michael is a “diverse school community where all are welcomed and the diversity within its population is celebrated as a strength. Students and staff at Saint Michael learn different perspectives from each other. While the conversations are not always easy, they are extremely important in helping create a community of unity and understanding.”

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