By Devina SamarooIt was high drama on Wednesday evening when a Pandit made some startling remarks at the Heritage Month Interfaith Service, prompting the Adviser to the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mervyn Williams to walk out, completely offended.The Interfaith Prayer Service, which was held at the Amerindian Heritage Village in Sophia, is an annual event that ushers in the celebrations of Amerindian Heritage Month.Pandit Deodatt TillackBut this year’s event was far from traditional after Pandit Deodatt Tillack of the Shri Samayapuram Mariamma Temple took to the stage to offer his contributions to the service.In examining this year’s theme “Our Culture, Earth’s Future – Save the Environment, Live the Indigenous Way”, Pandit Tillack declared to the amusement of sections of the audience that US oil giant ExxonMobil was here to rob the environment and that persons must beware.Most shocking, however, was when he declared that the indigenous way is characterised by paedophilia.“I was reliably informed that in Amerindians’ tradition and culture, and please I stand to be correct, that a girl as soon as she enters puberty, she must be equipped with these fundamental knowledge: she must know how to make the pepper-pot, the cassava bread and she must also know how to warm the bed…,” he stated.At this point, a visibly upset Williams rose from his seat up in front and walked out of the benab.Perhaps oblivious to the alarmed expressions on the faces of the audience, the Pandit went on to highlight that these practices were against the laws of the country.“While they seem it is okay for you to get married at 12, or a 17-year-old boy to marry a 12-year-old girl; our Constitution speaks against that…and according to the criterion that meets the criteria of paedophilia is that the person has to be five years older than the victim,” he stated.In wrapping up his speech, the Pandit charged that good qualities were the best garment, and urged everyone to decorate themselves with them.InappropriateThe Ministerial Adviser was standing outside the benab trying to comprehend what had just transpired when the media exited.Approached for a comment on the matter, he told media operatives that the presentation was utterly inappropriate for the prayer service.“I was extremely uncomfortable, because I believe this to be a very sacred occasion. It is invoking the blessings of God Almighty under whatever name you call him on this activity and I think there was a misconception of some issues, and I believe that those issues, having been misconceived, lead to an inappropriate presentation,” Williams explained.He posited that the Pandit should have sought clarity ahead of the presentation.“I think it was perhaps misinformation and perhaps the absence of some clarification led to this inappropriateness. I believe if one is going to speak to an issue, I believe it is in one’s best interest to seek clarification on all the details one requires before making the presentation,” he stated.Moreover, Williams indicated that he strongly disagreed that the culture to which the Pandit alluded did not exist.Respecting opinionsIndigenous Peoples’ Affairs Minister Sydney Allicock, when approached for a comment on the situation, simply noted that everyone has their own opinions.“Everybody has an opinion and that’s their opinion. For me personally, these things do happen. It’s a multiracial society and this is just one of those things to encourage dialogue,” he stated.President’s takePrompted for his position on the situation, President David Granger expressed that the indigenous people should speak for themselves regarding their cultural practices.“I think every ethnic group has its own cultural and religious customs and rituals. It is my view that the best people to speak about their own cultures are the people themselves. Sometimes when we go outside of our cultural boundaries there be some practices which we won’t comprehend. I agree that it is common that we are one people and that we should understand each other better. But in the particular matter that you refer to, I would prefer that the indigenous people speak for themselves,” the President stated.Generally, Granger also urged that individuals should broaden their knowledge and learn to understand and appreciate the country’s diverse cultures, especially before speaking definitively on them.PrayersThe controversy aside, the Interfaith Service was marked by prayers and cultural presentations from a number of Amerindian groups and religious organisations.Prayers were offered by the Hallejuah Group Tasserene, the Baha’i community, the Anglican Church, the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, the Muslim community, and the Guyana Rastafarian Council.Various groups also presented Arecuna, Akawaio, Patamona, Makushi, Wapishana and WaiWai prayers.