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Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Secretary Bob Dechert

Religious freedom office ambassador coming soon

  • April 11, 2012

OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Secretary Bob Dechert expects the Canadian government will soon name  an ambassador to head the Office of Religious Freedom.

Dechert, who has been overseeing consultations for the new office that have been taking place across Canada, told the Second Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom and Governance April 2 the Canadian government is committed to making religious freedom a pillar of foreign policy. He did not announce a date for the office’s establishment, but said it will have an initial budget of $5 million.

As a lawyer and student of human rights for the past 30 years, Dechert said he thought Canada was an example to the world that other countries would emulate. But Dechert told the 150 representatives of religious groups, among them many who had experienced persecution in their native lands, that over the past 10 years he has realized things are not getting better on religious freedom, but “a lot worse.”

“We’re going to point out the importance of religious freedom and point out where religious freedom is in jeopardy in places around the world,” he said, noting that societies that respect religious freedom are also more likely to be stable societies that respect other human rights.

Hosted by Conservative MP David Anderson, the forum featured politicians, an imam, representatives of the think tank Cardus and Sun TV host Brian Lilley. 

Conservative MP Scott Reid said religious discrimination can become active persecution when the state or majority religion sees people converting or groups proselytizing. In China, the persecution of Falun Gong began when the government saw the converts as a challenge to the regime, he said. The Chinese government also feels challenged by the unauthorized Christian house churches.

Reid said Canada must defend the individual right to follow one’s conscience and blasted attempts to pass laws that protect religions from defamation. Anti-religious defamation laws “essentially provide cover for states to pursue those who are converting from a state-sponsored religion,” he said.

Freedom of religion must include the right for open, vigourous debate of ideas, he said.

Former Liberal MP Mario Silva, who now chairs the International Forum for Rights and Security, said there is a need to make sure people are talking about the same thing when they speak of religious freedom. Silva noted Pakistan’s blasphemy laws not only allow Christians to be targeted, but also other religious minorities, including Muslims, who do not toe the majority line.  

On a recent visit to Afghanistan, Silva said it was impossible to discuss issues of apostasy or blasphemy.  

“It was the single taboo topic of non-discussion,” he said. “People would walk out of the room because people fear for their lives.”

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