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The values Canadians most cherish include democracy, peace, equality and freedom. So if the purpose of awarding Diamond Jubilee Medals is to honour significant contributions to Canada, then Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner have every right to wear their medals proudly.

The pro-life crusaders are among 60,000 Canadians being honoured under a program to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Their names were submitted by Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott and approved by the Chancellery of Honours in the Governor General’s office. As Governor General David Johnston said last February in announcing the program, nominees were sought who “have dedicated themselves to the well-being of family, community and country.”

By that definition, Wagner and Gibbons are worthy winners. Canada currently lacks both an abortion law of any kind and a mainstream political party willing to discuss drafting one even though polls show that most Canadians support some type of legislation. Gibbons and Wagner, despite court orders and injunctions against them, and despite much public vilification, have been relentless in their peaceful, prayerful protest against what Pope Benedict has called a crime against society.

For this, both women have been repeatedly jailed. Gibbons has spent almost 10 of the past 20 years behind bars for maintaining her sidewalk vigils. Wagner has spent less time imprisoned but is currently jailed for trespassing after taking her cause inside a private clinic.

The two women are serial dissenters and, due to their criminal convictions for what amounts to civil disobedience, their inclusion on the honours list was widely criticized. The objections, mainly from those intent on silencing pro-life voices, ignore the long and important history of civil disobedience and peaceful protest in Canada. Equality rights for racial and religious minorities, women and the disabled all have roots in peaceful protest.

Gibbons and Wagner are pro-life crusaders first but they are also unwitting defenders of the fundamental Canadian rights of lawful assembly, peaceful protest and religious freedom. For that, they have been repeatedly imprisoned when their courage and resilience should warrant gratitude from not only pro-life advocates but from all Canadians.

When someone like Gibbons asserts a democratic right to pray and protest peacefully for the unborn, and then is arrested for it, all of society should be indignant. Canadians are guaranteed the freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. When one person confronts authority to peaceably express those rights, regardless of their particular cause, they’re advancing a fundamental right important to all Canadians.

Bravely, Gibbons and Wagner have been doing exactly that for years, and that’s why they’ve earned a Diamond Jubilee Medal.

A saint for today

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It took 128 years from the launch of her sainthood cause for Kateri Tekakwitha to be canonized. That’s a long wait even by Church standards. But when Pope Benedict proclaimed St. Kateri on Oct. 21, the timing seemed perfect.

Kateri’s life of virtue and holiness was lived more than 400 years ago, but perhaps there has never been an era when her story was more relevant — or more important. In many respects the 17th-century heroine is ideally suited for these times.

Orphaned, disfigured by smallpox, ostracized for her beliefs, Kateri committed her life to works of charity and to Christ. Despite facing constant hostility, her faith was steadfast.

As we begin the Year of Faith, Catholics are being called to become proud and joyful disciples who give public witness to faith. In an era when Western culture is widely cynical about religion, Catholics are asked to re-connect with Church teaching and re-embrace Catholic values. They’re asked to confront an increasingly secular world with courage and conviction, to promote Catholic truths and to resist the secular forces of conformity.

Just as St. Kateri did.

“May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are,” Pope Benedict said at the canonization ceremony.

In particular, Kateri, who died at age 24, can be a model for Catholic youth. Young people need
a counter influence to offset a pervasive media culture that constantly dismisses traditional morality in favour of hedonism and materialism. Kateri’s life demonstrated the virtue of living a life guided by prayer, sacrifice and charity.

She also showed that it’s not how you look, but how you live that’s important. Society today places perverse value on personal appearance. Looking good is a multi-billion-dollar industry that targets teens and young adults with an often-harmful message. Kateri’s story is a counter message that professes that true beauty is emitted from the heart, not reflected in a mirror.

Her face scarred and her eyesight damaged at an early age by small pox, Kateri stands as a symbol of strength and comfort for anyone persecuted or bullied because they are different. That message is important at a time when technology is making bullying easier than ever and when teen depression and suicide are rising. Kateri faced her tormentors. She refused to abandon her beliefs but instead answered a call to chastity and embraced Christ, even though it made her an object of scorn in her village.

As Quebec Archbishop Gerald Lacroix said, Kateri is an excellent role model for young people of how to live a “simple life, faithful to the Lord, in the midst of hostility.”

Kateri lived her faith proudly and proclaimed it joyfully. It’s a message worth spreading.

Won’t be silenced

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“Defending the voiceless is our mission.” Cardinal Thomas Collins, addressing a packed house at the annual Cardinal’s dinner on Oct. 11, couldn’t have been more blunt in delivering that pro-life message to the Ontario government. Catholic schools largely exist to impart the teachings and moral values of the Church. On the issue of life, Church teaching is unequivocal, just as the cardinal’s position is immovable.

His comments came a day after Education Minister Laurel Broten made the outlandish claim that being pro-life was tantamount to misogyny and therefore pro-life activities were unwelcome in Catholic schools because, she suggested, advocating misogyny contravenes Bill-13, the province’s new anti-bullying law.

“Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be considered one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take,” she said.

Catholic educators have every right to bristle at the minister’s rhetoric. She apparently believes that when Catholic teachers use the catechism to profess that life begins at conception and abortion is immoral, they are teaching Catholic youth to hate women. The suggestion is ludicrous and reflects the very intolerance that prompted the minister’s own anti-bullying laws. A minister serious about confronting misogyny would investigate the rise in Canada of sex-selection abortion that targets females. Catholic education is not the problem.

Catholic students are taught to respect life and love all. Catholic teachers are hardly women haters — they’re mostly women! To label them misogynists is as absurd as accusing ministers who send their kids to Catholic schools of being anti-Catholic.

The cardinal’s other point was to underline again that Catholic education rights are enshrined in Canada’s Constitution and are protected in the provincial Education Act. The soon-to-be-retired premier or his education minister have no authority to make Catholic schools less Catholic by coercing them to abandon a core mission. Also, parents have a constitutionally protected right to send their children to publicly funded, faith-filled school environments that promote Catholic morals and values.

“Both the Constitution and the Education Act make it clear that the Catholic identity of the school must be respected,” Collins said. “It is our mission to speak up for all those who suffer, and especially for those who are voiceless.”

After using Bill-13 to force Catholic schools to accept gay-straight clubs, Broten now seems poised to use the bill to trample other religious freedom rights. That is very troubling. Will a pretext be devised to muzzle Church teachings on, say, divorce, same-sex marriage, contraception, chastity and fidelity? The bill was sold as a means to subdue bullies, not crush Catholic education.

Broten repeatedly says she supports Catholic education. But it’s becoming increasingly unclear if she even knows what that is.

Reigniting faith

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Initially, it seemed odd when Pope Benedict XVI declared the Church would celebrate a special Year of Faith. Aren't followers called to be joyful witnesses to Christ every year? For the baptized, isn't faith already the fabric of daily Christian life?

The answers to those questions, of course, are yes. At least they should be. So in that sense the Year of Faith, which launched on Oct. 11, is preaching to the converted. But none of that diminishes the foresight of the declaration or the duty to heed its call.

The coming year is designed to usher the Church into a period of reflection and rediscovery of faith and, by extension, into a revival of Christian values. The Pope has long worried that faith, particularly in the West, is being battered by cultural and political forces that are causing a "profound crisis of faith" in society. His Year of Faith is the Church fighting back.

He wants to entice lapsed Catholics back to church and to introduce the faith to non-believers. To achieve those goals the Pope intends to stoke the fires of evangelization in all Catholics by en- couraging a deeper understanding of Scripture and Church teachings, and then urging all Catholics to proceed with authority and joy to give public witness to faith.

"We want this year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope," the Pope said.

He calls the Year of Faith a time to study, profess and demonstrate faith. It is a year for Catholics to re-learn their faith and connect proactively with others whose devotion has lapsed or by example to others who have never found God.

There are many ways to accomplish this — through the sacraments and prayer, meditation and study, retreats and pilgrimages — but some practical activities are particularly recommended. These begin with studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which just turned 20. It is the training manual for Catholics and the first source to learn or re-learn the faith.

Catholics are also encouraged to read the documents of Vatican II, to memorize the Nicene Creed and recite it daily, to attend adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, to study the lives of saints and to participate in parish workshops that explore Scripture and Church teaching. Pilgrimage is also important, not necessarily to distant locales like the Holy Land, but to closer sites such as the Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ont., or St. Joseph Oratory in Montreal, or St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto.

The Year of Faith is focussed on the laity, "who should not be considered collaborators of the clergy, but people who are co-responsible for the Church," said Benedict. It is about them becoming proud Catholics and Catholics that others can be proud of.

A better Church

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Fifty years ago this week the largest gathering of bishops ever assembled heeded a call from Pope John XXIII to attend the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

It was a remarkable event. Each time the council was in session between 1962 and 1965 more than 2,000 bishops were present. They came from all corners of the world and, in sheer numbers, they were triple the total number of bishops (almost entirely European) who attended the First Vatican Council a century earlier. The Catholic world had never seen anything like it and, in many regards, Catholicism has not been the same since.

The Church today is better because of Vatican II. It’s not perfect, far from it. The task of interpreting and implementing the council’s 16 documents is ongoing. But Vatican II wasn’t a quest for perfection. It was about spiritual renewal and Christian unity in a post-war world on the cusp of extraordinary social, economic and technological revolution. Space flight was turning our thoughts to the heavens and Pope John sought to ensure God’s place on that journey.

“It is not that the Gospel has changed,” the Pope said at the time. “It is that we have begun to understand it better . . . the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.”

Vatican II lasted three years (with a nine-month hiatus after Pope John’s death in 1963) and the Church did indeed emerge spiritually invigorated. But, regrettably, not totally united. Considerable disagreement remains between those who say the council went too far and those who say it didn’t go far enough, between those itching to hit the rewind button and those longing to push fast forward. That disagreement won’t blacken the golden anniversary celebration but, unfortunately, it could soften the glow.

This issue of The Register devotes eight pages of special coverage to Vatican II but barely skims the surface of those historic days. What’s important to note, however, is that Vatican II was about evolution of Church practices, not revolution of Church doctrine. The council produced no radical doctrinal break with the past but, in keeping with Pope John’s intent, it emboldened the bishops to be future-looking.

The past half century has witnessed a whirlwind of social, scientific and economic innovation that, today, regularly pits society’s shifting values against the Church’s fundamental teachings. It might be a stretch to suggest Pope John saw all this coming. But he sensed something was up. The Second Vatican Council was the fruit of that foresight.

But, in the words of Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, it could take 100 years to fully understand all the implications of Vatican II. It’s a journey and we may only be half way there.

Family society’s rock

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New data from Statistics Canada that shows the traditional family is in decline comes as no surprise but that doesn’t make the findings any less troubling.

Canadians who live alone now outnumber couples with children. Fewer people than ever are getting married and they’re having even fewer children. Single parenting is rising, as is common-law and same-sex parenting.

It is premature to declare the traditional family structure as dead, far from it, but it’s certainly suffering. From 2006 to 2011, the number of children living in either common-law or single-parent households shot up by 22 per cent. One-third of Canadian children are now living in non-traditional family households, compared to about 10 per cent 50 years ago. That gap between traditional and non-traditional parenting will only become more narrow as young people continue to reject marriage to live common-law, as high divorce rates and pre-marital births create more single-parent homes and as same-sex parenting increases. The data has been moving in that direction since the 1970s and nothing indicates the trend will change.

What is surprising, however, is the nonchalant reaction of Canadian society to this radical reconstruction of family. Studies have found that stable, loving, two-parent (mom and dad) families make for a healthier society. Indeed, many studies suggest society suffers when traditional families and the values they instill are replaced by alternate child-rearing arrangements.

Families are the bedrock of civil society. They are the primary teachers of right and wrong, the place where values and morals are instilled and the foundation is laid for good citizenship. They are the place where children learn to love, give, co-operate, compromise and pray. It is also where they learn how to be good moms and dads.

Children raised in traditional families are less likely to fall into drug or alcohol abuse, criminal activity, depression, promiscuity, and they are less likely to grow up in poverty. They have better success rates in school, work and marriage, and they tend to become better parents themselves.

Catholics further recognize the sacredness of family as rooted in Scripture and promulgated by the saints and Church leaders. Speaking recently to a group of French bishops in Rome, Pope Benedict called family the foundation of society but said the foundation is threatened by “a faulty conception of human nature.”

“Marriage and family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.”

So the prudent reaction to the decline of the traditional family would be a thorough evaluation by society of this worrisome trend. To blithely accept it as an inevitable, even commendable, evolution of society is something we do at our peril.

Emissary of hope

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As war raged in Syria and an anti-Muslim film ignited violence across the Arab world, Pope Benedict calmly arrived last week in Lebanon as a “pilgrim of peace.”

The 85-year-old pontiff would have been excused if, citing age and security concerns, he’d postponed this trip. During his three-day stay, 25 people were injured and a man killed in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, during protests aimed at an American film that mocks Islam. The day after he left, missiles from Syrian jets hit Lebanese territory. The region, habitually unsafe, is particularly dangerous right now.

The purpose of the trip was to officially endorse the Apostolic Exhortation that was drafted following the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. That task could have been accomplished in the Vatican, of course, and transmitted live worldwide by video-conferencing and Internet technology. Yet the Pope dismissed that option.

Instead, he made the right and courageous decision to stand beside the Christians of the region and, by his physical presence, acknowledge the hardships they endure by living in nations that are often hostile to Christianity. That simple act alone says much about the Pope. Then, addressing some 20,000 young people from several Middle East countries, he urged them to be the vanguard to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its birth.

Middle East Christians, facing social and economic discrimination and seeking safety for their families, have been emigrating in droves to Europe and North America. At the current pace, Christianity might virtually disappear from the region in a generation. It is asking much of young Christians to endure financial and religious hardship, but that is exactly what the Pope implored. To be effective, the message had to be delivered in person.

“I am aware of the difficulties you face daily, on account of instability and a lack of security, and your sense of being alone and on the margins,” he said. But, he added, “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future.”

The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation lays a common-sense framework for Middle East Christianity to endure. It emphasizes dialogue, respect, equality, tolerance and forgiveness among Christians, Muslims and Jews, while denouncing secularism and fundamentalism. The Pope urged young people to never be afraid or ashamed of being Christian and he affirmed their right to religious liberty, to live publicly as Christians and to participate fully in civil life.

The Pope arrived in Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace but departed as an emissary of inspiration and hope. He ignored the latest regional upheaval and chose boldly to stand among the anxious Christians to let them know in person that he will not abandon them. That may have been the most important message of all.

Unjust law must go

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The photos were startling: a military helicopter, heavily armed soldiers and a mentally handicapped girl being rushed through a prison courtyard to board a flight to safety.

Rimsha Masih must have been terrified. A blanket shrouded her head to hide her face from the many fanatics in Pakistan demanding her death. But shielding her identity also had the powerful effect of exposing yet again the outrage of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Masih was accused of burning pages of the Quran, arrested, charged with the capital offence of blasphemy and locked up for three weeks. Amid howls for justice and decency, a judge ruled the charges defied belief and granted her bail. Soon afterward, Masih’s jail cell was given to a Muslim cleric who had incited a crowd against her. He was arrested on suspicion of planting evidence on the girl in a plot to foment hatred for Christians and drive them from their homes.

Masih’s case quite rightly garnered international headlines. Even before the cleric’s plot was exposed, demands for her release were heard around the world. Her age is disputed (her family said she is 11 while a medical report puts it at 14) but it is clear she is a minor with the mental capacity of a much younger girl.

Her release and the arrest of her accuser are welcomed signs that, at some level, the condemnation by various governments, Church groups and lay organizations of Pakistan’s blasphemy outrages are being heard. The Canadian government and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name just two, have been commendably vocal in denouncing the blasphemy laws. They’ve been joined by a core of Pakistanis, both Christian and Muslim, who’ve advocated bravely for tolerance despite obvious risks.

Yet it would be a mistake to crow too loudly over one small victory.

Masih received bail but she is still facing the original charges and a conviction could still bring the death penalty. Many Pakistanis were outraged at her arrest but many others still call for death to her and her family. The judge acted humanely in granting bail but prosecutors still have not dropped the outrageous charges against the traumatized girl.  The army provided a helicopter and soldiers to fly Masih to safety but the government still shows no readiness to replace these vile laws with laws that guarantee dignity and respect for religious minorities.

A Pakistani study reveals that 250 blasphemy cases have occurred there since 1987 and 52 people have been killed after being accused, often falsely, of blasphemy. So Masih’s case is an international reminder of Pakistan’s obstinacy on this issue. The blasphemy laws must go.

Showing compassion to one traumatized, fraudulently accused, mentally handicapped child really is the least Pakistani authorities could do.

Return to civility

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Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.” But 250 years later Franklin’s wise words have been turned upside down. Public discourse today is often about being enemies to many and civil to few.

That is increasingly evident in our media, homes, schools and even churches, but is particularly true in our political dialogue. Intelligent, civil debate has been bludgeoned to death by crass, dishonest personal attacks that demean the political process and alienate voters.

For that reason, the Knights of Columbus and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan are to be commended for promoting civility as an issue in the American presidential election. It’s about time people of influence told political leaders to smarten up.

Dolan has asked the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice-president to sign a Knights of Columbus petition seeking a return to civility in politics. That includes refraining from personal attacks for the duration of the campaign.

No doubt the cardinal realizes this is a tough sell. But it is one well worth pitching. There is a close connection in any society between civility and morality. People must first treat each other with respect and decency in order to advance those values across society as a whole. Cynical politicians create soulless governments that pursue selfish agendas rather than advance the common good.

That is as true in Canada as it is in the United States. On this mud-ward slide, Canadian politicians are tumbling right behind their American counterparts.

Dolan may not have been speaking to Canada but we should be listening anyway.

“We need to remind those running for office and those in office that how we disagree with each other says as much about us as a nation as what issues we disagree on,”said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

For that reason, the Knights launched a Civility in America campaign to remind society in general and politicians in particular of the Christian ethos to act always with respect and dignity towards others. It is a non-partisan campaign developed after a survey showed 74 per cent of Americans believe political campaigns are increasingly negative and 66 per cent believe candidates spend more time attacking opponents than discussing issues.

“Candidates aren’t running to become the next American Idol,” Anderson said. “They are running to become our public servants. They ought to behave in a manner that keeps faith with that goal.”

Spirited debate and disagreement are signs of a healthy society. But dialogue must be conducted with civility. Otherwise conversation becomes confrontation and society is demeaned. We all have a stake in making courtesy common again.

No repeat of Iraq in Syria

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The insurrection to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is entering its 18th month but despite international condemnation of his brutal methods and economic sanctions against his regime, the dictator refuses to release his grip on power.

The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 Syrians — most of them civilians — have died in the fighting. Other groups cite fatality figures twice that number. In addition, more than a million people have fled their homes, including about 200,000 Syrians, mostly families, who’ve sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries.

Few if any people can feel safe today in Syria. But that is particularly true for Syria’s two million Christians. Under Assad, and his father before him, Christianity was tolerated and some Christians even held prominent government positions. Now Syria’s Christians expect a Muslim backlash when Assad’s overthrow, which seems inevitable, is completed.

Their fear is based on the winds of Christian persecution that blew through Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like his  Sryian neighbour, Hussein was also tolerant of Christianity. But when his regime fell, thousands of Christians lost their homes and businesses. Many more were harassed, assaulted and large numbers killed. Tens of thousands fled as refugees, reducing Iraq’s Christian population by half.

It may already be too late to save Syria’s Christians from the same fate. But the international community has an obligation to flex its muscle and try. It must learn from its failure in Iraq and act decisively in Syria so that a civil rebellion to end repression doesn’t install a regime that imposes a new type of intolerance.

Pope Benedict has appealed for peace in Syria and for humanitarian aid to support the uncapped flow of refugees. Later this month, he will visit Lebanon and is expected to renew the Vatican’s call for religious freedom throughout the Middle East, home to 5.7 million Christians.

The Canadian government has pledged $10-million in humanitarian aid, including $2 million for emergency medical supplies. That’s a good start, but the aid must go quickly and efficiently into trusted hands who can ensure it is actually spent on humanitarian relief. There are several reputable agencies and NGOs (including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association) that know the political terrain and whose expertise the government should utilize. Even then, the government can do more. It must become vocal at the United Nations and other forums in demanding that Syria’s next government respect human rights, particularly those of its religious minorities. It should also heed calls from the opposition Liberals and temporarily relax immigration policies to make Canada more accessible to Syrian refugees.

Iraq showed what can happen when persecuted minorities are abandoned. A repeat shouldn’t be allowed to happen in Syria.

Protect all rights

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Quebec society has been chipping away at its religious foundation for years so it should be no surprise that the party poised to form the province’s next government is championing a full-blown Charter of Secularism.

Still, this is a sad testament on the state of spiritual life in what was once Canada’s most faith-filled province. Although there has been some opposition to the proposal, Quebecers have not risen up en masse to denounce the notion of a secular charter or to criticize its authors, the Parti Quebecois, which proposed this unfortunate piece of legislation.

PQ leader Pauline Marois intends to make her secularist charter a priority should her party form the government after Quebecers go to the polls Sept. 4. The gist of the policy is to prohibit public-sector employees from wearing “conspicuous religious signs.” The PQ has not released details, but the legislation is expected to target such religious items as the Jewish yarmulke, Muslim hijab and Sikh kirpan.

Such legislation would be a clear contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects religious expression. But Marois said she’ll override the Charter by invoking the notwithstanding clause because, she said, “we insist on conserving our identity, our language, our institutions and our values.”

Catholic expressions of faith, however, are to be mostly exempt. Civil servants, for instance, will be permitted to wear a chain with a crucifix if it is “discreet,” and a large crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly will remain because, said Marois, it is a part of Quebec history and “we don’t have to renounce our history.”

Catholics should find little consolation in these concessions. All of society has a stake when any government disrespects fundamental rights. And all people of faith should be particularly alarmed when any group’s religious freedom is threatened.

Religious freedom is an inalienable right that is essential to the dignity of all people and, as such, it must be protected by civil authority, according to the catechism. Pope John Paul II said all social and cultural discrimination, including religious discrimination, must be “eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” Pope Benedict once called it “inconceivable” that people should be forced to suppress their faith or “denied the right to act in accordance with their religious convictions.”

Pope Benedict’s comments were in response to violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa.  What the PQ proposes is tame by comparison. But it is discrimination nonetheless and should be denounced; freedom of religious expression is an inalienable right of all people.

Christian nations can hardly demand foreign governments respect the rights of religious minorities if Christians are unwilling to defend full expression of those fundamental freedoms at home.