Experts weigh in role of Canada’s proposed religious freedom office

Oct 21, 2011 – 9:51 PM ET | Last Updated: Oct 23, 2011 2:40 PM ET

Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News files

Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News files

Janet Epp Buckingham, director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, thinks an office of religious freedom could help educate others in government about religious persecution.

The idea was first suggested in the midst of the federal election campaign, the kind of proposal that was politically astute because it targeted the religious ethnic communities the Conservatives needed to win a majority: A promised office of religious freedom that would monitor abuses against persecuted minorities around the world.

Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Stephen Harper and professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said the Tory promise was good policy as well as good politics: The proposal would resonate with new Canadians, particularly Christians, many of whom were persecuted in their homelands.

Besides, he said, the Department of Foreign Affairs had never really shown much interest in exposing religious persecution.

“To have an office to report on religious persecution would be a step forward for this country,” he said.

But there was no sense then of how a new office would tackle such staggering problems as the murder of Coptic Christians in Egypt or the continual oppression in China and nor was any timetable given. This month, John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with experts on the topic, suggesting the Tories are serious about the idea and raising questions about what it might look like.

At those consultations, the Tories heard suggestions of what would make the office effective — but also what traps to avoid that would quickly make the office irrelevant.

“I told the people in Ottawa that you have to be careful not to choose people for the office who will be seen as lackeys of the Christian right,” said Thomas Farr, former director of the U.S. State Department’s religious freedom office.

There is a skepticism about religion in large parts of Canada and the United States, he said, and you do not want people to think the office is promoting “religious imperialism.”

At this point the only things known about the proposed office is that it will have an annual budget of $5-million, and its head may have ambassadorial status.

Mr. Baird’s office refused to give an interview on the subject but did issue a press release, long on generalities and short on details.

In part it said: “The Office would take on activities that are most likely to improve respect for the right to freedom of religion, and could include defending religious minorities and monitoring the right to freedom of religion; promoting the right to freedom of religion as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy; and advancing policies and programs that support the right to freedom of religion in line with Canadian values of tolerance and pluralism.”

Mr. Farr said an office of religious freedom, even in a relatively small country like Canada, can be effective. Or not.

“You don’t need it if all you’re going to do is issue press releases,” said Mr. Farr, now the director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs in Washington. “That’s one of the problems with the American office. They put out good reports on religious freedom but it’s not a policy. It’s simply rhetorical condemnation.”

Mr. Farr said the message that has to be relayed is that democracy can never work without religious freedom. Then you have to have highly trained staff who know about history and theology who can go out into the field and find sympathetic people who can help bring about change from the ground up.

“This can’t be government to government and sets of talking points.

“[For example], Egypt has opted for democracy by getting rid of the tyranny of the Mubarak regime. So the message has to be that in order to get what you want, what you have opted for as a people, is you can’t keep treating the Copts like this. Because it is fundamentally undemocratic and democracy will never take hold. And therefore you will never have economic stability, you will never have internal security, you will always have Islamic extremists. And then you have to say, ‘We can help you do that.’

“There are Muslims there who get this, even in the Muslim Brotherhood. Find them where they are and are capable of taking other people with them.”

He said religious freedom can be a weapon against terrorism as Islamic extremism does poorly in tolerant nations.

Janet Epp Buckingham, former director of law and public policy at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said an office would be able to educate others in government about how to deal with issues of religious persecution. Foreign Affairs officials used to say they lacked the expertise to deal with international religious issues, she said.

The office could be used as an effective means to educate and disseminate information across Foreign Affairs so Canada’s embassies could better monitor religious persecution issues abroad.

But Prof. Epp Buckingham, now director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, said no one should think that an office of religious freedom will be able to exert real leverage on persecuting countries, especially if they are our trading partners.

“Unfortunately, when push comes to shove Canadians will put trade relationships ahead of human rights,” she said.

NDP leadership candidate Paul Dewar, the former Foreign Affairs critic, said the issue is clearly serious, especially in a fledgling democracy such as Iraq where religious persecution has been rampant.

When he was there a few years ago for a conference on federalism, the issue of the persecuted Assyrian Christians who are facing extinction never even came up.

Still, he questioned the wisdom of creating a separate office. Instead, he suggested the promotion of religious freedom should be part and parcel of Canada’s foreign affairs apparatus.

“Just separating out religion is difficult because there are many other variables at play,” Mr. Dewar said. “It is often mixed in with colour, ethnicity and language. It shouldn’t be carved off in a separate institution.”

Don Hutchinson, vice-president and general legal counsel of the Ottawa-based Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a major Christian lobby group, said the amount of persecution happening in the world today makes it imperative that a religious freedom office be established quickly.

“I think the office will bring a needed prominence to the primary human rights violation in the world that is both religiously motivated and religiously directed,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who was part of the consultations. “There are 60 countries in the world cited for religious persecution.”


  1. Just like the HRC’s it would just turn into another organization that fights for & promotes islam and all of its unreasonable demands.

    Think of any supposed multi-faith chapel, all religious artifacts EXCEPT prayer rugs & islamic renderings have been removed so as not to offend muzlims.

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