Defending faith

  • April 12, 2011
Freedom of religion is enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But merely articulating this noble concept is meaningless without the will to vigourously defend it.

So it is encouraging to see this important issue injected into the election debate through a promise from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that’s been endorsed by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. Pope Benedict XVI calls religious freedom the path to peace and now we find it may even be a  source of harmony between Liberals and Conservatives.

As part of their election platform, the Conservatives have pledged to create an Office of Religious Freedoms that would operate within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. This new office would monitor religious freedom abroad, promote it as a tenet of Canadian foreign policy and support programs and organizations that advance the cause of religious freedom. It would also offer safe haven to persecuted religious minorities through “generous” refugee programs.

These are laudable objectives and opening a department with specific oversight of religious persecution is long overdue. Still, some critics  branded the announcement as crass electioneering and obvious pandering to Canada’s ethnic voters. But even if the timing raises eyebrows — the $5-million expenditure wasn’t in the Conservative’s March budget — this is still a worthy initiative.

The United States has maintained an Office of International Religious Freedom since 1998. Canada would do well to mirror the Americans. They champion religious freedom as a core objective of their foreign policy by not only advocating for religious rights but by denouncing regimes that persecute their own citizens because of faith beliefs.

The Conservatives seem broadly aligned with this approach. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney cited attacks on religious minorities, including recent killings in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq, as the impetus for elevating defence of religious freedom to a core value of Canadian foreign policy. Creating a full-time watchdog would be a positive upgrade on the current practice of issuing condemnations only after an incident of religious bloodletting.

“As a champion of human rights around the world we should be entirely comfortable with focussing on the rights of vulnerable religious minorities,” said Kenney. Even Ignatieff agreed. “We think an initiative like this is the kind of thing that ought to have the support of all sides in politics.”  

That rare uniformity places both men in harmony with the Pope. He has encouraged world leaders to build a society that embraces religious diversity and defends individual conscience and human dignity. Opening a Canadian Office of Religious Freedoms won’t by itself rid the world of religious persecution but it would be a commendable step in the right direction.

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