Iraqi Christians and supporters marched for religious freedom through the streets of downtown Toronto Aug. 10. Despite relative freedom, controversy over Quebec’s proposed secular charter in 2013 prompted Aid to the Church in Need to designate Canada a country of concern for religious freedom. Photo by Michael Swan.

Religious freedom ‘of concern’ in Canada

  • November 15, 2014

Canada has been rated a country “of concern” in the latest “Religious Freedom in the World” report issued by the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 

Given the 2013 debate in Quebec over a proposed “secular charter,” which would have removed visual displays of overt religious items like a crucifix, forced Orthodox Jewish men who wear a kippa and conservative Muslim women who cover their hair out of all public sector employment, it was impossible to ignore the state of religious freedom in Canada, said Aid to the Church in Need national director Marie-Claude Lalonde. 

“I can tell you that I received phone calls and e-mails from friends all around the globe asking what’s going on,” Lalonde said from the ACN-Canada headquarters in Montreal. “It was difficult not to include Canada in there for those reasons.” 

In its fifth report in the past 10 years, Aid to the Church in Need examined the state of religious freedom in 196 countries and found reason for “deep concern” in 116 of them. It rated 20 countries as having “a high degree of religious intolerance or active persecution,” with 14 of these linked to “extremist Islam.” 

Founded in 1947, Aid to the Church in Need was recognized in 2011 by the Vatican as a pontifical foundation. With offices in 17 countries, its mandate is to support Catholics who are suffering from poverty or persecution. 

Lalonde concedes that there’s a difference between beheadings and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East and debates about the public role of religion in Canada. 

“The report talks about persecution at large, which means very mild persecution to extremely severe persecution,” she said. “What’s going on in Canada right now is a discomfort. It’s not persecution as such. But in many countries, that’s how persecution started. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re getting there. We’re far from persecuted in this country. But there is a certain level of discomfort.” 

In addition to the secular charter debate in Quebec, the report cited the controversial imposition of Quebec’s ethical and religious cultural school curriculum. Catholic parents lost a court challenge to exempt their children from the mandatory program, which proposes that all religions are equal. The matter is now before the Supreme Court. 

Additionally, the report cited the debate about the imposition of a new sex-education curriculum in Ontario Catholic schools; a Supreme Court ruling that blocked William Whatcott from distributing anti-homosexual flyers; and some isolated cases of discrimination against Christians, Jews and Muslims. The report did not mention the imposition of gay-straight alliance clubs in Catholic high schools over the objections of Ontario’s bishops. 

The report, however, seems to lack balance and perspective, said David Seljak, St. Jerome’s University College chair of the religious studies department. 

He found the ACN report “an interesting hodge-podge.” 

“It’s really a scattergun approach to the topic,” said the academic. 

Both Canada and the United Kingdom were rated as countries “of concern” where religious freedom had “deteriorated” over the past two years. The United States and Australia were rated “low” on the religious persecution scale, though both countries also were judged to have “deteriorated” since 2012. The only two countries where ACN believes religious freedom has improved are the United Arab Emirates (“medium” on the religious persecution scale) and Taiwan (“low” persecution). 

Secularization in Canada and intercommunal massacres in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia are really “two very different animals,” said Seljak. 

“In each historical context there are specific reasons why Christians and other groups are facing oppression,” he said. “To mix up or conflate the persecutions of Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East or in Africa and then to include that in a report about European society becoming more secular really seems to reflect a kind of lack of judgment.” 

The report claims to take a neutral and objective view of religious freedom, without favouring any one religion. However, much of the report is dedicated to the suffering of Christian minorities around the world. 

“The report obviously favours Christianity, even though it says it won’t,” said Seljak. “It’s obvious that the organization is clearly most interested in discrimination against Christians.” 

The ACN claims “Christians are by far the most persecuted faith group.” Aid to the Church in Need cites a 2010 Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the European Community report which claims 75 per cent of all religious violence is directed at Christians. The statistic is taken from an Evangelical organization called Open Doors International. 

The often-repeated statement that the world’s two billion Christians are the most persecuted religion is more polemical than factual, said Seljak. 

“It’s not an empirical statement, but the report takes it as such,” said Seljak. “That is a line that went around conservative, Evangelical circles. I don’t know how exactly you would prove that statistically, but I think if you look at the fact that 1.4 billion people in China don’t enjoy religious freedom and only a small minority of that is Christian, I would wonder whether Christians really are the most persecuted minority in the world.” 

Seljak has no argument with the premise that Christians are suffering, or with Aid to the Church in Need’s efforts to raise money and awareness to help persecuted Christians. 

“It’s a justice issue. These are persecuted communities and you would want to raise money to support them in the time of their need,” he said. 

In the last year ACN has sent $5.7 million to Iraq to help with housing, schooling, medical care and pastoral care of displaced Christians, said Lalonde. 

Christians in the comfortable West need to talk about what is happening to their brothers and sisters around the world. 

“Every year it is getting worse,” Lalonde said. “Our first duty is to talk about it, to inform people. There are so many people who don’t even know that there are still problems with religious freedom in the world. In Canada, we are so free it’s very difficult to imagine that being Christian can be dangerous.” 

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