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Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had lunch in a Chinese restaurant Thursday to deliver a message of tolerance in the wake of the SARS health emergency, lending his support to businesses hurt by the scare.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," Mr. Chrétien said, accompanied by a number of Toronto-area Liberal MPs, said outside a restaurant in one of the city's Chinatowns.

Earlier Thursday, as he left Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter's funeral, Mr. Chrétien said: "This is a great community in Toronto and I saw on the news that very often there is nobody in the restaurants and so on, and there is no reason for that."

Although public health officials stress that SARS is not a disease of ethnicity, Chinese-Canadian groups have complained that they are the target of racism and stereotyping - and the Chinese business community has said the stigma surrounding SARS has led to fewer people frequenting the restaurants and shops of Chinatown.

Mr. Chrétien promised last week that the federal government would do all it could to ensure the necessary resources to contain SARS - which is believed to have spread to Canada from China - and support research into the disease.

Toronto-area case figures inched up only slightly Wednesday, continuing a welcome trend that has developed since the weekend. The province has 195 probable and suspect cases, which make up the bulk of Canada's 242 cases.

Last Friday, Paul Martin, former finance minister and Liberal leadership candidate, joined leaders of Chinatown's business community for a meal in a similar show of support.

Meanwhile, Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton once again called on Premier Ernie Eves to pay a visit to a Chinese restaurant to show support for the community.

"By its silence, the government certainly seems to be playing into some of the fears and it certainly, by its silence, it, I think, is allowing some of the extreme voices to receive undue attention," Mr. Hampton said.

"I also believe the government wants to stay as far away from this issue as they possibly can. Because what the issue really underscores is the degree to which public health in this province has been underfunded and under-resourced."