Religion a core value

  • January 3, 2012

The Christmas morning bomb attacks on Nigerian churches that killed dozens of worshippers underscores why the Stephen Harper government cannot act soon enough to establish an Office of Religious Freedom.

Its creation was promised during last spring’s federal election and, under Foreign Minister John Baird, consultations began in October to set parameters for the new department. The Minister has promised details in coming weeks but, as yet, has not announced an opening date for the new office. Horrors like the carnage in Nigeria should spur him to keep this initiative on a government front burner.

As Fr. Emmanuel-Mary Mbam writes from Nigeria, Canadians need to be educated about religious intolerance abroad so we can respond intelligently to this scourge. His plea is passionate. Religious freedom is a fundamental right enshrined in Canada’s constitution and endorsed by the United Nations. Yet, unlike other universal principles that affirm the dignity and equality of all people, religious freedom is often a taboo topic among skittish Western governments in mad retreat from any issue that places church and state in the same sentence.

That’s why an Office of Religious Freedom is important. It will give Canada ammunition to be pro-active in promoting religious tolerance in all its foreign relationships and, in some cases, offering support to persecuted people, regardless of their particular faith. Religious freedom is a value Canadians should be proud to export.

With a staff of about six and budget of $5 million, the office will be a modest operation. Its purpose is not to make Canada a world policeman. Rather, it will monitor world events so that religious persecution can be incorporated into foreign policy decision making. Much as a foreign nation’s record on gender and racial equality should be considered by Canada when making decisions on trade, treaties or aid, so should religious freedom be a core value promoted by Canada. As Canada once shunned segregated South Africa, it should shun nations that prop up religious apartheid.

Studies indicate religious freedom is more than just a religious issue. Nations that value religious freedom are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, healthy, educated and free. Religious freedom goes hand in hand with democracy. Yet even though religion plays some part in most world conflicts, there is a general reticence among Western nations to defend religious rights as vociferously as they defend other fundamental human rights. That must change.

In his plea from Nigeria, Fr. Mbam says Canadians need to learn about the plight of his people. That sentiment can be extended to all who face religious oppression. Documenting religious persecution is the first step to eliminating it. Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom can’t open too soon.

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