The Conservative government will soon announce an Office of Religious Freedom, fulfilling a promise made in the 2011 election campaign. The stated intention of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is to create an organization that will monitor and criticize religious persecution and to promote religious freedom around the world. There is no shortage of persecution in countries as diverse as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Colombia and Mexico, but as is always the case in politics it is important to scrutinize the intent and the fine print of any undertaking. Doing so raises some genuine questions about the wisdom of this idea, a fact that may also explain why the government has been so slow in fulfilling its promise.
The Office will be housed within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It will have an extremely modest budget of $5 million a year, which means that it will not be able do much beyond the most rudimentary research and talking it up — what the Americans call a bully pulpit.
In fact, the plan is modeled on the Office of International Religious Freedom which was created by the Clinton administration in the United States in 1998. A common criticism is that the American office was focused almost entirely on the persecution of Christians abroad, and that it was used to create space for American evangelical Christians to proselytize in other countries. Madeline Albright, then the secretary of state, was opposed saying that the office in focusing only on religious persecution created a “hierarchy of human rights” — privileging persecution based upon religion over other that of race or gender, for example.
Although few details have emerged about exactly how the Canadian office will conduct itself, Foreign Affairs Ministers John Baird said in a speech in Washington that, “We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless [of] whether it is popular, convenient or expedient. We do so as part of our commitment to basic human rights for all.”
Baird said that the concerns of the Office will not be limited to Christians but that, “Far too often, those targeted are Christians. Christians, in particular, face persecution in countries in every part of the world.” He cited Iran and Egypt as examples. Yet in singling out Christians as the world’s main exemplars of persecution, Baird and other government ministers seem prepared to use the issue and the Office as a political vehicle to reinforce ties with their political constituency.
There was a signal in that direction when on October 3, 2011 Baird’s office convened a gathering of faith-based organizations in Ottawa to discuss the Office. While the audience consisted of representatives from a variety of religious groups, the panelists reflected a Conservative base among evangelical Christians, along with conservative Catholics and Jews.
Those panelists included:
Father Raymond De Souza, a Roman Catholic priest, self-described as a friend of Ministers Baird and Jason Kenney, a frequent guest at Conservative-sponsored events on Parliament Hill and elsewhere, and a regular columnist for the National Post.
Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish organization that under Dimant’s leadership has developed close and supportive ties to Conservatives and the Christian right.
Anne Brandner, an employee of the Global Peace Initiative, who is a former employee of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
Don Hutchinson, currently the EFC’s vice-president and general legal counsel.
Hutchinson defended Baird’s selection process for the meeting and wrote in a later blog post that, “Christians are the most persecuted religious group on the planet.”
Muslims not invited
Baird’s departmental website indicated that he had also consulted with the Agha Khan, the wealthy and hereditary Imam of the relatively small Ismaili Muslim community. But notably absent from the October 2011 event were representatives from the Muslim faith, including Shia and Sunni Muslims. Nor were there Buddhists, Sikhs or Hindus on the panel. That did not go unnoticed. “They excluded both the Shia and the Sunni, and we make up the majority of Muslims,” said Wahida Valiante, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
Amnesty International not invited
Nor were secular human rights groups invited. Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said: “We weren’t invited, and this is troubling.” Neve said his group supports the government’s efforts on religious freedoms, but that human rights groups such as Amnesty can help navigate sensitive issues — for example, when religious freedom conflicts with the rights of women, or the rights of gays and lesbians, or free speech. “These are all vitally important human rights issues, which are very often around the world constrained and blatantly violated in the name of religious freedom.”
Calculated political move
Carleton University political scientist Jonathon Malloy wrote in The Globe and Mail about the Office of Religious Freedom. He said it is a calculated political move whose significance has been misunderstood or missed entirely by most observers.
“A prominent Ottawa journalist,” he wrote, “said it’s just a sop to ethnic communities. But the proposal’s greater impact is among millions of suburban white evangelical Christians, many of whom consider religious freedom a bigger issue than same-sex marriage or abortion.”
Low cost pledge
Malloy added, “For all the concern about a Harper secret agenda against abortion and gay rights, this [Office] is the real stuff that brings Conservatives and evangelicals closer together. The prospective effect of this office of religious freedom is almost beside the point. This is a low-cost, high-yield pledge that resonates deeply with evangelicals, without the divisive risks of explosive sexuality issues.”
So, once the office is established, we will see if it is a fearless and even-handed critic of all persecution of religionists or if it will be carefully selective.
Given the government’s interest in Chinese markets and investment, will the Office criticize the Chinese government when it oppresses religious minorities, as is often does?
Given the Conservative government’s description of itself as Israel’s best friend, will the Office criticize the government of Israel for its longstanding and illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and its oppression of Palestinians, most of whom are Muslims?
Will the Office, criticize religious leaders and organizations when they themselves are the originators of religiously-based oppression? A group of elders – including Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson – issued a call several years ago for religious leaders to make it clear that faith groups will not tolerate the oppression of women and girls. Will the Office of Religious Freedom take up that issue?
The government has spent more than a year consulting its constituency about the Office of Religious Freedom and will soon have to appoint a director and advisory group and outline some operating criteria. We’ll all be watching.
Very good article and analysis, Dennis. Thanks. I am sharing it.
Thanks, Dennis — well done, will share. I see valid concerns. None the less, I am pleased (and a bit surprised) this Office of Religious Freedom has been established. Lets see what happens with it in the year ahead.
Thanks Lona, and agreed that we should wait and “see what happens” as far as the Office of Religious Freedom is concerned.
Dennis, Thanks for alerting us about this. The future consequences of this are very troubling.
Great analysis, Dennis. I’m afraid that with the panel and with the Harper government’s penchant towards control and setting out what those in government want (Eg, Kairos and many other examples), there is not much hope that there will be and even-handed approach to what will be done by this so-called Office of Religious Freedom.
Rights and Democracy, a fine organization monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, was destroyed with its leader, Remy Beauregard, dying of a heart attack in the process. Is this new office intended to replace Rights and Democracy or will it be another agency that promotes a Conservative message and not a Canadian message?
Thanks for your comment Dave. I had also thought about Rights and Democracy in this context. I was once invited to a day-long seminar organized by Rights and Democracy to talk talk about religious freedom. It was extremely well done. Will we be able to say the same for the Office of Religious Freedom? I hope so but I am skeptical.
The creation of the Office of Religious Freedom underscores a key weakness of the Conservative Party and Government: The personal views of its core supporters constitute sufficient evidence in support of government initiatives. Put another way, “We’re right because we’re acting on principle.”
Which principle? I look forward to the day when some brave journalist challenges Mr. Baird and his fellow righteous Conservatives on precisely WHICH principle is the basis of their various “principled” positions. “Principle” is a neutral word until it is attached to some content; but I suspect Mr. Baird et al intend to leave the term hanging, knowing that their supporters will assume a Conservative-friendly principle. Other governments have taken the heat from their own members and applied the principle of equitable treatment for all, and it’s worked quite well to now. It’s also a defensible principle for a pluralistic democracy, and as such it is also an important moral principle. Equity for some is not morally defensible.
Unfortunately for Mr. Baird and for his Evangelical, Catholic and Jewish friends, the Office of Religious Freedom will ultimately have to deal with the challenges of religious pluralism, both in Canada and abroad. This means one religious position or set of positions cannot hold sway over those that are excluded, else you have an Office of Catholic, Evangelical and Jewish Freedom and good luck with that.
Defining “religious freedom” is difficult, but so far I’ve not seen any associated with the ORF. I would have thought it something that one might have expected to see up front. I suspect this is another Conservative example of “common sense,” surely a rare, probably non-existent but nevertheless troublesome imaginary concept. So, what is religious freedom? Is it the freedom to believe whatever you wish, privately, or is it also the freedom to practice one’s religion in the public square? Is it the freedom to evangelize one’s religion in countries with contrary state religions? Is it the freedom to see one religion’s specific beliefs enshrined in public policy? If so, what happens when a state religion forbids religious practices of another religion?
For example, Iran operates as a theocracy and its leader’s version of Islam–his and his government’s religious beliefs–may well require him to exclude Christians from practicing their religion in Iran. In other words, he could argue that not excluding Christians from Iran would constitute a breach of his right to religious freedom. If Christians insist on a presence in Iran, would the Canadian ORF come to their defence or to the Iranian leader’s defence?
The overriding issue, however, is not one of religious freedom but rather the Conservatives’ persistent failure to understand the dangers of the tyranny of the majority. A pluralistic society must work constantly to ensure the rights of minorities. For those efforts, Catholics, especially, should be grateful, since their right to their own school system in Ontario, at least, was secured when Catholics were a small minority group. As for Christians and their fear of persecution, cases can undoubtedly be made in other countries, but in Canada Christians now represent the vast majority of citizens while Muslims are make up something like 2% of the total population. If any religion ought to be included in the ORF, surely Islam is it, since it stand the greatest likelihood of having its believers’ religious freedoms threatened by the Christian majority.
To date, and to my understanding, Mr. Baird has been unsuccessful in finding someone to head his ORF. Some news sources have suggested that possible candidates either represent too much of one religion and too little tolerance of others, or they fail to grasp the transparent partisan rationale the Conservatives have attached to the ORF. My prediction: The ORF will quietly fade away as Conservatives are slowly educated on the principles and challenges of navigating the perilous waters of religious pluralism.
Thanks Jim for this detailed and considered comment. One thing I did not have the space to discuss is the “freedom from religion”. Would the Office of Religious Freedom criticize those governments that insist individuals belong to or practice a certain religion when, in fact, they may wish to belong to no religious group. In Canada, the census takers tell us that group comprises almost 20% of the adult population.
Dennis, as one of the 20%, I am familiar with the “freedom from religion” argument, but in recent years I’ve reconsidered my position on this. In Canada, at least, religious believers are regularly subjected to openly secularist views that clash with their own and, because we are governed mostly by secularist principles, this happens more often than is the reverse.
In many important ways, non-religious Canadians already enjoy the right to freedom from religion. We are not required to join in public prayers, on the rare occasions they are offered. We are not required to belong to a religion or attend a church or a religious school. We can openly espouse atheism without recrimination. I used to argue that secularism is a neutral philosophy, but I no longer agree with that claim. In my view, secularism is, among other things, a belief system whose foundational principles are no more provable than religious foundational beliefs. It would best be understood, in my likely contentious view, as a form of religion. It is only because it serves as a kind of “honest broker” in a pluralistic religious society, and quite successfully so.
All that said, and I agree it’s perhaps a bit much, freedom from religion in other contexts need not involve secularists at all, but rather the right of Christian, for example, to not be forced to belong to espouse Islam or for Muslim to be forced to adhere to religious cultural customs of another faith. If the ORF actually comes to life, it could possibly do a good service as a conduit for religious refugees to seek asylum in Canada–but this would mean taking in not only Christians or Jews and there, I suspect, is the rub.
Thanks again Jim. I agree, the “freedom from religion” protection is most important in countries where people are expected or forced to adhere to a religion.
Thank you for the report Dennis. It seems to me that excluding Muslims may be creating more division, instead of more understanding.
Actually, I think the first place that the phoniness of the whole initiative will be exposed will be when it refuses to acknowledge the existence of Palestinian Christians and refuses to criticize their treatment by the Israeli government.
Will this group take on the Harper government’s own attacks on freedom of religion? Harper cut money for KAIROS and MCC because they aided Palestinians. They threatened the Mennonite church paper with the loss of tax exemption for being “too political,” i.e, advocating peace and justice for Palestinians (they also had one article in which a young person said Jack Layton was a personal inspiration). Given the membership of the group, it seems its purpose is to feed fundamentalist paranioa (and pay off Harper’s supporters).
William, you make a very good point. The first place for ORF to check for issues related to freedom of religion is in those cuts and the reasons for them.
This is a very timely and well-reasoned article.