Office of Religious Freedom–positive promise or political tool?

In 1928, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover promised voters, “A chicken in every pot. A car in every garage." Hoover didn't invent campaign promises, but he sure hit a grand slam with his chickens and car promise. Too bad about the Great Depression that scuttled Hoover's good intentions.

The promise by Stephen Harper's Conservatives during the recent federal election to establish an Office of Religious Freedom to monitor and promote religious freedom around the world didn't exactly capture the imagination of Canadians, but it is significant in a number of ways.

Taken at face value, the Office of Religious Freedom is based on other similar organizations elsewhere (notably the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom). Its goal is nothing short of making religious liberty a fundamental plank in Canada's foreign policy. You only have to look at the so-called “Arab Spring" revolts in the Middle East to see how political upheaval can have tremendous impact (good or bad) on people's right to believe what they will.

So if principle or belief in a “universal good" like religious liberty still matters in how Canada conducts itself in the international community, then the Office of Religious Freedom should be a positive thing.

However, one has to wonder whether the Office could become a political tool not just for a government that plays to conservative Christians as well as other newer, religiously conservative ethnic groups, but also for a secularist Opposition looking for a new religious punching bag.

How, for example, would the Conservative government deal with the legislative attempt by Quebec to interfere with access to health care and educational services for Muslim women who insist on wearing niqab (a cloth which covers the face and worn by some Muslim women as a part of a hijab)? Will the Canadian government have any credibility in defending religious liberty abroad if one of its own provinces discriminates against Muslim women who chose to express their moral and religious beliefs by wearing this obviously religious garb?

And what about allegations (whether true or not is debatable) that Israel is interfering with the religious liberties of Christians and Muslims by imposing travel restrictions on worshippers with its controversial West Bank Wall? Will the Conservatives' avowed support for the State of Israel allow for criticism of religious abuses in that nation?

But it isn't just the potential for abuse of the Office of Religious Freedom by the government that should worry us. The NDP, now bloated by largely rabid secularists from fundamentally secular Quebec, may well see the Office as a “tool" for imposing the Conservatives' alleged fondness for “evangelical Christianity" on our foreign policy. Or the Office could be seen as a political tool for solidifying Conservative gains in ridings (particularly in Southern Ontario) where new Canadians have found a home in Stephen Harper's brand of conservatism.

So, with lofty principles come lofty expectations ripe for political plundering.

It would be a shame if the Office of Religious Freedom fell victim to the political games in Ottawa. The World Evangelical Alliance estimates that more than 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights because of their faith. A 2009 report in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Vol. 33, No. 1:32) estimates that if current trends continue, an average of 210,000 Christians will be martyred annually by 2025. Add persecuted Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and other faith groups to that number, and the scope of the problem is astronomical.

As we've seen in places like Iran and Egypt, when a political revolution tosses out regimes, radical extremists with a religious bent can usually been seen trying to divide-and-conquer their way to power.

I would like to think that most Canadians support efforts by our federal government to ensure an individual's right to believe and practice what one believes. This is undeniably a critical element for stable democracies. What good is replacing one tyrant who denies you your right to democracy with another tyrant comes along and prohibits you from worshiping your god?

Good on the Conservative government for delivering the Office of Religious Freedom as promised. The principle behind the organization is sound. Its intentions are of the highest order. Let's just hope it does not become just another political tool by shortsighted and selfish Canadian politicians.

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