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.