Interfaith marriages: can they work now or ever?

In Features, Love & Sex /

By Eyeopener Staff

Twenty-nine years ago, when John and Mary Macmillan were planning their wedding, they weren’t worried about presents and honeymoons. Instead, they wondered who would perform the ceremony and in which church.

Over the years, aside from the usual rigours of raising a family, the Toronto couple has had to decide where their children would be baptized and where they would pray on Sundays.

Mary is United Church and John is Catholic.

“When we dated, we talked for hours about these things,” says Mary. “We were up late for many nights.”

In today’s multicultural society, interfaith and interdenominational relationships are becoming more and more common. People of different backgrounds and religions casually meet in universities and at work, and from the first days they face a slew of challenges. Aside from th normal stresses of a relationship, couples may have to deal with conflicting religious traditions, disapproval from their family and community or even prohibitions from their faith.

“As far as church laws, there are no prohibitions against interdenominational and interfaith marriages,” says Rev. Tony Pablo, a Catholic priest and chaplain at Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto. Problems may arise from family members, he says. “They may worry that the couple won’t respect one another’s different beliefs.”

For Mary and John, who lead church marriage preparation courses, communication is the key to understanding each other’s beliefs, and they’re able to compromise. They were married in the Roman Catholic church, with both of their clergy officiating.

“The priest blessed the rings, and my minister led the vows,” Mary says. For two years, the spent Sundays shuttling between morning prayers at the United Church and evening Mass at the Catholic church. Lately, they pray at the Catholic church, because it was getting too hectic.

Forty years ago, interdenominational marriages were less accepted, says Rev. Robert Black, an Anglican chaplain at the University of Toronto. “Today the walls are more like speed bumps.” But marriages within Christianity are a “lesser matter” than marriages with other faiths. 
Within Christian tradition we hold common beliefs — the couple is making an agreement to include God in marriage. Interfaith marriages are more challenging because it is exploring an entirely new religion.”

Anthony Agostino, a Catholic, is planning to convert to Greek Orthodoxy to marry his fiancee, Vagia Thanos. When Anthony, a 23-year-old Ryerson student, first met Vagia, 22, their religious different didn’t bother him at all. “You meet as people,” he says. But three months later, when the relationship turned more serious, Anthony decided that if marriage came up, he would convert.

“Religion is really important for Vagia,” he says. “She wants to get married in the Greek Orthodox chuch and raise our kids in that tradition, and I respect that,” he says. “When you love somebody, making sacrifices for them is second nature.”

“People can transcend religious barriers,” Pablo says. Differences can be resolved if couples communicate during the dating period and respect one another’s religious stance. It is critical that couples discuss how they will raise their kids, he says. Some might want to mix both beliefs, while others may choose one tradition over the other. “If it is on the table they won’t face problems later,” he says. Interfaith relationships are a positive sign of how people can understand differences and bridge gaps, Pablo says.

But for Jewish people, it’s better not to go out on that first date if it’s with someone of a different faith, says Rabbi Aaron Flazraich of Beth Shalom Syagogue in Toronto. “Interfaith dating and marriages are unacceptable.” Jews are prohibited from marrying outside of their religion according to Jewish law, he says, and most rabbis will not perform an interfaith marriage.

“The commitment to a Jewish home and Jewish life dictates that the person you marry be Jewish,” says Rabbi Michael Stroh of Temple Har Zion Synagogue in Toronto. “It’s not racist, it’s religious. Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colours.”

Simply dating someone who isn’t Jewish is treading on thin ice, says Flanzraich. “No one knows if the next person they date is going to be the one they marry,” says Flanzraich. “I wish I had a crystal ball, but I don’t.”

While some interfaith couples promise to raise their kids Jewish, statistics show only a small number actually do, says Stroh. “It’s a tremendous threat to the Jewish people. We’re going to lose a lot of people.”

More than half of Jews getting married this year (52 per cent) will marry people who aren’t Jewish, according to the Jewish Outreach Institute. “It is a reality of life,” says Stroh. “And therefore we will reach out to interfaith couples and encourage the person to convert to Judaism.”

In the Islamic faith, “intermarriage is discouraged, not encouraged,” says Imam Abdul Hai Patel, the Muslim chaplain at U of T. “In Toronto, there is a very small percentage of intermarriages among Muslims, not even 1 per cent,” he says. However, Muslim men and women can marry anyone who converts to Islam, says Patel, the coordinatorof the Islamic Coordinating Council of Imams. Muslim men, however, can marry Christian and Jewish women who don’t convert because all three faiths believe in one God, he says. This permission comes directly from the Koran, Patel says.

It’s important the couple clearly respects Muslim values in order to avoid confusing their children or hurting their parents, says Patel. “If the couple itself is not convinced of the [Muslim] values, they stand to lose.” Some interfaith marriages fail, but others succeed, he says.

Chris Nadavallil, a 23-year-old Ryerson student, is Orthodox Christian and has been seriously dating a 22-year-old Hindu woman for a year and a half. “We’ve had a lot of long conversations about each other’s religions,” he says. “We both knew it would be tough on our parents, but meeting someone new doesn’t mean you lose your religious identity.”

When they first met, Chris didn’t know anything about his girlfriend’s religion. Now he tries hard to understand her daily religious practices, such as prayers. “Even though some of her traditions are hard for me to conceptualize, I accept her faith,” he says.

The young couple isn’t sure what the future holds for them if they marry. Whether one of them converts or not, it’ll be difficult. There are potential problems, such as where they would get married. Temple or church? “But if you love someone, you are patient and take the time to understand,” says Chris.

He sees the relationship as normal. “The only reason it isn’t normal is because it’s long distance (she’s in England), not because of the religious aspect.”

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