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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Canada’s religious freedom work is timely, needed, and should be supported

August 7, 2013

During the federal election campaign in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to address the persecution of religious minorities abroad by establishing an Office of Religious Freedom. When announcing this initiative at a political rally in April 2011, PM Harper praised the memory of my friend Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated Pakistani cabinet minister of minority affairs.

After Harper’s electoral victory, his government’s June 2011 throne speech said that the new office would “help protect religious minorities and...promote the pluralism that is essential to the development of free and democratic societies.”

Those of us in the international religious freedom advocacy community welcomed the announcement.

Issues of religious freedom have never been more relevant, especially after the convulsions of the Arab Awakening.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I work, has documented religious freedom violations around the world, in places as diverse as Nigeria, Egypt, Russia, Pakistan, and China. These violations stem from authoritarian repression, societal pressures, and non-state actors espousing an ideology of violent religious extremism. In addition, studies indicate that both religious belief and restrictions on religion are increasing globally, a combination that greatly increases the likelihood of conflict and instability.

Canada joins the growing group of countries and international institutions with a specific focus on this fundamental human right. For instance, the European Union has expressed particular interest in this issue (and recently issued guidelines for all EU missions on religious freedom promotion). The United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, and Italy have also created special emphases and/or offices.

Unfortunately, it took almost two years to name an ambassador and fully staff the Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now the expanded Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development). As someone who has worked in this field for 15-plus years, I was surprised by the level of debate this initiative engendered in Canada during that interregnum. At times the objections seemed politically motivated—if Harper is for it, we’re against it—while at other times they appeared to stem from Canada’s more secular political culture.

There was also significant debate when the US Congress was considering the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, the law that established the special ambassador-at-large and office within the State Department and my independent commission.

Resistance came foremost from the State Department, which did not want to be told how to order its priorities. Yet Congress, supported by an array of religious communities and human rights groups, felt the issue was deserving of greater importance due to its prominence in our history, constitution, and international law. Fifteen years after passage, the act’s effectiveness is still debated in Washington, but it remains a landmark achievement that created unique human rights mechanisms.

Ambassador on the move

Andrew Bennett was appointed the first Canadian ambassador for religious freedom in February 2013 and visited Washington in April, meeting with the State Department, religious communities, non-governmental organizations, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

We found him to be engaging and knowledgeable, despite just being assigned this portfolio. After his visit, Washington-based groups interested in religious freedom welcomed his addition to the advocacy community.

I hope that acceptance also is growing in Canada, along with lasting political support. I noted that Parliament in April unanimously adopted a motion brought forward by members of Parliament Bev Shipley and David Anderson, calling on the government to continue to recognize the importance of religious freedom in Canadian foreign policy. This cross-party support hopefully signifies enduring political backing for this initiative.

Ambassador Bennett has been active in his travels since our meeting, and the recent cabinet shakeup does not appear to have affected the Canadian commitment to religious freedom.

Going forward, Canada’s approach should be broad, including a wide focus on international religious freedom for everyone, as well as a sensitivity to the plight of specific religious minorities. Countries that protect freedom of religion or belief for all—including for the majority faith, dissenting members, minority communities, and those who hold no beliefs—are more stable and prosperous. Those without it often suffer from violence, extremism, and instability. Consequently, effective religious freedom advocacy addresses concerns across the religious and belief spectrum, which will in turn improve the situation for religious minorities.

In the face of these immense challenges, we should celebrate our common North American commitment to promoting freedom of religion or belief internationally. As inscribed on the Peace Arch between Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia, we are “Children of a common mother” and “Brethren dwelling together in unity.”

A joint US-Canadian effort can have real impacts, helping individuals suffering for merely wanting to peacefully practise their faith, while also addressing drivers of instability and violence.  Whatever the political origins of this initiative, Canada’s efforts are timely, needed, and should be supported moving forward.

Knox Thames is the director of policy and research at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Commission is an independent US government advisory body, separate from the State Department, which monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and the Congress. The views expressed here are his own.

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