Members of the Islamic State destroy ancient artifacts in Iraq. Screenshot/YouTube

Harper promises funds in support of religious freedom

By 
  • August 12, 2015

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged continued support for religious freedom, promising $9 million to help persecuted religious minorities.

The money would support a new three-year program targeting the Middle East, building on the Office of Religious Freedom’s Religious Freedom Fund, according to an Aug. 10 announcement made by Harper during an election campaign stop in Markham, Ont.

The funds would help finance efforts in Iraq and Syria to protect places of worship and religious artifacts threatened by the Islamic State.

Harper also pledged to accept into Canada an additional 10,000 refugees from the region despite criticism that his government has been slow to meet earlier refugee target commitments. They would be brought into Canada over the next four years.

More than six million Iraqis and Syrians have been forced to flee persecution and genocide.

Canada has welcomed more than 22,000 refugees to date from Iraq and Syria, according to government data.

“Canada has long served as a refuge for the persecuted,” Harper said.

The additional $9 million in funding would be managed through the Office of Religious Freedom, which currently advances the cause of  religious freedom worldwide with an annual operating budget of $5 million.

“Strong democratic societies such as Canada embrace religious diversity and pluralism,” Harper said, adding that religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities would remain as a “pillar of Canadian foreign policy.”

NDP MP Paul Dewar said his party believes “encouraging religious tolerance and promoting religious freedoms around the world is an important Canadian value.” However, he claimed the Conservatives “broke their promise to establish a democratic development agency, meaning Canada’s broader commitment to democratic values, tolerance and the rule of law is not reflected.”

The Office of Religious Freedom was created in 2013 under Andrew Bennett as the first Religious Freedom Ambassador. Attached to the Foreign Affairs Department, it focuses on advancing religious freedom internationally.

According to the Aug. 10 announcement, 75 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries “with high restrictions on religious freedom.”

“Religious minorities in Iraq, Syria and nearby regions are facing major threats from ISIS, who has engaged in the mass murder of Yazidis, beheadings of Coptic Christians, kidnapping of Assyrians and bombings of Shi’a mosques,” said the release. “ISIS and its followers have also desecrated and destroyed sacred places of worship, holy sites and ancient religious artifacts throughout the region.”

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