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Canadian census figures show for the first time that Muslims outnumber Jews -- a demographic that could ultimately affect this country's position toward the protracted Middle East conflict.

When the 1991 census was taken, about 25 per cent more people said they were Jewish than Muslim. But immigration from predominantly Muslim countries has reversed that dynamic.

Figures from the 2001 Canadian census, released yesterday by Statistics Canada, show that the number of people claiming to be of Muslim faith increased by 128.9 per cent to 579,640 in the decade beginning in 1991, making Islam Canada's fastest-growing religion.

The number of Jews also increased during that period, but only by 3.7 per cent to 329,995.

Muslims made up 2 per cent of the population in the census; Jews represented 1.1 per cent.

While Canada has, in recent years, tried to maintain an evenhanded response to the Mideast crisis, Israel's supporters in Canada's Jewish community have sometimes argued that remaining neutral means siding with Palestinian terrorists. The growing influence of Muslims may reinforce Canada's desire for neutrality.

"I would have to say with a caution that, yes, of course it is going to have an effect because politicians respond, of course, to votes," said John Carson, a professor of Canadian foreign policy at the University of Toronto.

"It's cautious because . . . the group within the domestic scene that supports Israel is organized, wealthy and focused. Unfortunately, many of the Muslims are not well organized, and not particularly wealthy -- with some exceptions, of course -- and they are not particularly focused."

And while most Muslims do support the Palestinians in the Mideast conflict, many come from places like Indonesia and Pakistan where the troubles in Israel are secondary concerns, he said.

Howard English, director of marketing and communications for United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto, discounts the notion that the Jewish community may lose influence as its piece of the demographic pie shrinks.

"The extent to which any group can influence elected officials is based in very large measure on the strength of arguments put forward and the skill with which you put forward those arguments," Mr. English said.

In addition, the census numbers do not take into account people who may consider themselves ethnically to be Jews but do not list Judaism as their religion, he said. And, in any event, he added, his group believes in harmonious relations between different ethnic groups and sees diversity as a positive force.

Wahida Valiante, national vice-president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, has watched her community's ranks swell since she arrived at Montreal's Concordia University in 1961.

"When I came here, I remember going to my college and saying 'Do you have any Muslim students' federations?' And they said 'Muslim? What's that?' Nobody really knew in Montreal what Muslims were," Ms. Valiante said.

That has changed, of course. But she believes it will be some time before people of her faith have a major voice in Canadian policy.

"The numbers don't say much unless the citizens that are being numbered play some active role," Ms. Valiante said. "Our lawyers are not in the thousands. Our social workers are not in the thousands. We're not in the government. Nobody calls us up and says 'listen, we've got this problem in the Middle East, can you come and consult with us?' So we don't have that kind of clout."

But it may be coming, she said, pointing out that the median age of Muslims in Canada in 2001 was 28.1. The national median was 37.3. And the median of the Jewish population was 45.1. So the Muslims constitute a young population with years to mature into Canadian leaders.

In the meantime, the churches that spawned the old generation of Canada's power elite are on the wane.

The number of Canadians who said they were Protestant declined by 772,830 to 8,654,845 between 1991 and 2001, leaving the religion with 29.2 per cent of the population.

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, increased their ranks by 589,500 to 12,793,125 as a result of immigration from countries like the Philippines where that faith is still strong. Catholics outnumbered Protestants for the first time in 1971 and Catholicism continues to be the dominant religion in Canada with 43.2 per cent of the population claiming to follow its doctrines.

It seems the biggest blow to the Protestant churches was -- and continues to be -- a drift away from organized religion.

The number of people who said they had no religion was up by 43.9 per cent between 1991 and 2001 and, perhaps more telling, the number of those identifying themselves simply as Christian with no particular denomination was up by 121.1 per cent to 780,450.

"People have, over the last 20 to 25 years, kind of moved away, not from faith or spirituality, but from institutionalized religion," said Mark McGowan, the principal of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.

"They have moved away from the formal disciplines and really personalized it or taken what they want from a variety of different faith perspectives and combined it, made it personal."

Census facts Religion Population of major religious denominations and how they have changed over a 10-year period.

Number of people
Percentage change
Roman Catholic       12.8 million         4.8%
Protestant           8.7 million         -8.2%
Christian Orthodox   479,620             23.8%
Christian (other)    780,450            121.1%
Muslim               579,640            128.9%
Jewish               329,995              3.7%
Buddhist             300,345             83.8%
Hindu                297,200             89.3%
Sikh                 278,415             88.8%
No religion          4.8 million         43.9%