Will Canadian Office of Religious Freedom help stop persecution?
By Beth Hiemstra | Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Janet Buckingham, associate professor with Trinity Western University, says a new Office of Religious Freedom will be beneficial for officials dealing with matters of religious persecution.. Used with permission.
OTTAWA, ONAs religious persecution increases around the world, the Canadian government is consulting on what an Office of Religious Freedom might look like.
The Conservative platform in the last election pledged to set up a special Office of Religious Freedom. The office would have a $5 million annual budget and a mandate "to monitor religious freedom around the world, to promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy, and to advance policies and programs that support religious freedom."
Janet Buckingham, associate professor at Trinity Western University and former legal counsel with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, is looking forward to an Office of Religious Freedom being established.
"I worked with officials from Foreign Affairs for a number of years on issues of religious freedom," says Buckingham. "I have had their officials say that they didn't have the expertise to deal with these issues. Having an office with expertise would be helpful, particularly if there is input from religious leaders."
Nearly a third of the world's population lives with increased religious persecution, according to a recent Pew Forum report. Between 2006 and 2009, government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially for 2.2 billion people around the world.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird held consultations with Canadian religious leaders, in Ottawa in October 2011and in Toronto in January 2012. The Minister has also met with international religious leaders, although few details of the discussions have been released.
"We think the idea is a very good one," says Alex Neve of Amnesty International, about the creation of the office. "That's not to suggest we don't have some questions, concerns and cautionary notes about how the office is set up."
"The most crucial concern for Amnesty is that the office be developed within a broader human rights framework. We know there are ways religious freedom can collide with other human rightswomen's rights, rights of gays and lesbians, minority religious groups," says Neve. "How will the office define, understand and approach religious freedom while respecting other human rights."
Neve expresses concern that the office will favour some religions over others. "An Office of Religious Freedom should be very much about all religions. We need to ensure there's no intentional or unintentional message that this office is concerned about some religions and not others. That's a concern because of the secrecy. Some religious leaders don't feel included or invited."
Ihsaan Gardee of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada points out the absence of the major Muslim groups in the consultation process. "None of the major Muslim mainstream communities were invited to the consultations. What were the criteria?" Gardee asks. "How can it seem broad-based?"
"It is ironic that they want to defend religious freedom abroad when they want to forbid a woman wearing a niqab from taking the oath of citizenship in Canada," says Gardee.
Gerald Filson of the Baha'i Community of Canada welcomes the Office of Religious Freedom. His community supports any initiative that puts the spotlight on religious persecution. Filson says the Baha'i Community has been included in consultations on the office and he sees no evidence of government favouritism.
Buckingham doesn't believe the Canadian government will favour some religions over others. "Canada has always been quite even-handed. It's a diverse and multicultural country. We will probably address some countries more often because Canada has a relationship and history with some countries more than others."
Filson points out the increase of religious persecution around the world in the last few years.
"There is a tendency among Canadians to think of religious accommodation," says Filson, "but when we are talking about religious persecution around the world, it's about people losing their homes, their jobs, their lives."