Religion is under assault in China. But Canada may not have the moral high ground it needs to defend it

While I agree with David’s critique of Chinese government repression of religious (and other) minorities, I think he overstates the impact and influence of the Office of Religious Freedom canceled by the Liberal government and makes a false equivalence between Chinese government repression and the relatively minor but not unimportant measures of Liberal government he mentions:

When I arrived in China as ambassador in the late summer of 2009, I came armed with a personal belief that supporting religious freedom in the country would be a central objective of the human-rights program at the embassy. I was encouraged in this by the very welcome priority that the government of the day brought to the issue, which made it clear that religious freedom is a Canadian value and a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – one that belongs to everyone, everywhere.

This policy clarity upset some people in the department who were unhappy about the inclusion of religious belief among the human rights that they were being called to defend. They criticized support for religious freedom as an unfair and partisan intervention on behalf of one of two perspectives that deserved equal respect from an impartial Canada. The other perspective was typically described as the “freedom not to believe.” It was as if we were trying to impose on countries like China a specific religious perspective, rather than simply trying to ensure that people in China weren’t tortured or imprisoned simply for having a religious perspective.

Having seen how ruthlessly China suppresses both faith and the faithful, I’ve never been particularly worried about whether the freedom not to believe is imperilled there.

My work supporting religious freedom in China exposed me to a form of Chinese diplomacy that was, at times, even more combative than it is now. I saw how tense and insecure officials in China were when it came to matters relating to faith, and how little understanding – much less sympathy – Communist bureaucrats have for matters of the spirit. This profound gulf in understanding and experience, widened by decades of anti-religious propaganda, has bred ignorance, intolerance and even fear of religion.

I had to struggle tenaciously to visit even a few temples and monasteries when I was finally and grudgingly allowed access to Tibet. When I visited Xinjiang, in China’s far west, I was followed for an entire day by a car full of thugs. This effort at intimidation was triggered by my meeting, without first seeking permission, with members of China’s Ismaili Muslim community, who are cut off from their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan. I was given a public dressing-down by my Chinese government handler when I insisted on keeping my appointment at a Catholic seminary that was being harassed by Communist Party officials. I avoided such theatrics when I later attended a service at a Protestant house church, but only because I didn’t bother to seek permission beforehand, since I knew it wouldn’t have been granted anyway.

I endured a number of lectures from officials from the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) – long-winded “opening” statements that often absorbed 55 of the 60 minutes allotted for our meeting. These sessions only served to reinforce my sense that the professional formation of Chinese officials renders them incapable of understanding religion as anything other than a superstition, but one that has sufficient motivating power to be a threat to the party.

This perception is reinforced if the religion in question is Christianity, despite roots in China that are 1,000 years old. Often, Christianity is referred to as foreign, colonial and sinister. Yet Christian missionaries played a role in introducing health care, education and other modern social services in China in a period extending from the late 19th century to the beginning of the Communist era in 1949. Canadian missionaries helped establish universities and medical schools, and cared for those injured in natural disasters and from violence inflicted by warlords and the invading Japanese. They even helped organize resistance to the cruel practice of foot binding, something that had been inflicted on generations of young Chinese women.

While China’s official antagonism to religion has been fairly consistent, its approach has not been uniform over time. The anti-religious extremism of the Cultural Revolution was followed by a gradual increase in tolerance broadly across many aspects of Chinese life, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s. The notable and tragic exception was the party’s bloody 1999 campaign against Falun Gong, a spiritual practice whose growing popularity caused communist officials to initiate a violent crackdown and propaganda campaign that led to waves of persecution, arrests, and reported torture and death.

A major rationale behind Beijing’s decision to relax controls on religion was its belief that it needed foreign support to power its economic revolution. But when Western countries were laid low by the economic crisis of 2008, that belief was dramatically diminished. After that recession, former Chinese president Hu Jintao’s administration became notable for its growing hostility to religion. This was tragically illustrated by a brutal government response to demonstrations in Tibet in 2008, and in the wake of communal violence in Xinjiang in 2009. Unrest in both places was triggered by legitimate local fears of religious and cultural assimilation; in both cases, the crackdowns targeted belief and believers.

When I visited Xinjiang, just after those 2009 riots, I was appalled by the formidable Chinese military presence: a ring of armed troops and military vehicles surrounding the great Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar. When I visited Tibet, I encountered menacing armed patrols forcing their way against the flow of pilgrims circling the Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism.

Religious persecution has only deepened and darkened today under Xi Jinping. Even as the decades-long assault on Tibet continues, and as Christian churches topple, China is showing us something new in Xinjiang: the awesome power of the 21st-century surveillance state. It is chilling in its scope, ambition and efficiency, as Muslim holy places, scripture, music, cultural practices and even traditions of family life are methodically eradicated, while Xinjiang is itself transformed into a vast prison camp. China is effectively writing the textbook for religious persecution in the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, China’s response to COVID-19 has also created new opportunities for surveillance and control of religious institutions. According to The Globe and Mail, Beijing has effectively enlisted faith leaders in a broader campaign to promote the party’s patriotic agenda.

Party-cultivated fervour for Mr. Xi has verged on the religious. He has been inserted into religious liturgy and iconography in Xinjiang and elsewhere, mirroring his growing cult of personality in the broader party and society. Not so long ago, a more moderate party – one that was embracing consensus-based decision-making and a predictable, peaceful process for leadership transition – had tolerated a degree of ambiguity about who occupies the holy of holies in churches, mosques and temples. But as Mr. Xi consolidates his unquestioned personal authority, the pressure grows to enshrine him in the mysterious space at the pinnacle of each religion – the place reserved for God alone.

There is almost certainly an overseas dimension to Mr. Xi’s efforts to suppress religious freedom. The party seeks to infiltrate and corrupt any activity, cause or belief system, at home or abroad, that attracts target communities. When shared religious belief brings members of the Chinese diaspora, or Tibetans, or Uyghurs together in Canada, it offers the party an opportunity for infiltration, for surveillance, for influence operations and for intimidation. And our government fails these groups by being less than resolute when it comes to speaking up about religious persecution in China.

Part of the reason is bad diplomacy, plain and simple. There is a pervasive notion in Ottawa circles that you can advance a cause by not speaking honestly about it – that China will somehow moderate its behaviour in exchange for our silence, rather than shrewdly equating our silence with consent. But the silent treatment never works with China: It only emboldens Beijing.

Indeed, it is precisely this colossally naïve diplomacy that is at the heart of the Vatican’s disastrous but recently renewed agreement with China, in which the Catholic Church has obtained modest concessions relating to the appointment of bishops and, in return, has remained silent about China’s human-rights abuses, including attacks on the religious freedom of Chinese Catholics and other believers.

But there is more to Canada’s disinclination to speak out. I believe our present government has been indifferent, at best, when it comes to religious freedom here at home.

In 2016, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government eliminated Global Affairs’ Office of Religious Freedom, a standalone initiative created by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2013 to monitor religious persecution around the world. That announcement was delivered with a hint of secular disapproval: “We believe that human rights are better defended when they are considered, universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, as set out in the Vienna Declaration,” said Stéphane Dion, who was foreign minister at the time. What’s hardest to understand is that he was saying this as violence was increasing against religious believers in China, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

Then, in 2017, Governor-General Julie Payette delivered an inexplicably offensive anti-religious rant. “We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process,” she said in a speech at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, mocking the idea that faith and reason could possibly intersect. Strangely, when the Prime Minister finally addressed the controversy, it was to defend his appointee, and not the millions of Canadians she had insulted.

That same year, we also witnessed the government’s clumsy attempt to require organizations applying for summer jobs funding to attest that their core mandate respects the right to abortion. Although this failed, religious organizations continue to worry, justifiably, about respect for conscience rights. They watch anxiously as the Canadian government broadens the availability of what it refers to as assisted dying by redefining promised safeguards as impediments before steadily sweeping them away.

This is deeply troubling. Perhaps those in power in this country can no longer summon the required reserves of understanding, tolerance and mutual respect that allow religious belief to flourish. But what is certainly clear is that Canadians are unlikely to champion religious freedom in China, or anywhere, if we don’t respect it everywhere – Canada included.


Glavin: Religious freedom is under assault. Will Canada be its champion?

Hard to say whether the Office of Religious Freedom had any substantive impact beyond raising the profile of religious freedom issues compared to having religious freedom as part of overall human rights, where it now resides.

The Evaluation of the Office of Religious Freedom conducted by Global Affairs Canada in 2016 was mixed in its review of the Office’s work and impact, providing a rationale for the Liberal government’s closing the office.

The planned evaluation of Partnerships and Development Innovation: Human Rights, Governance, Democracy and Inclusion to be approved February 2021 will give a sense of whether the human rights program effectively included religious freedom in its programming/activities or not:

Monday was a fairly uneventful day for Peter Bhatti, the 60-year-old president of International Christian Voice, a non-denominational organization based in Brampton, Ont. But it was a sad day, as March 2 has been, every year, for nine years. It was on March 2, 2011 that Peter’s younger brother Shahbaz was assassinated in Islamabad.

As Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti had drawn the ire of Islamist extremists for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of Pakistan’s persecuted Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, and the Hazara and Ahmadi Muslim minorities. Bhatti died from 22 gunshot wounds in an attack claimed by the Tareek-e-Taliban only six weeks after he’d visited Ottawa, where his activism served as an inspiration for the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom.

The high-level diplomatic project was shuttered by former Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion in March 2016. It was a move that Peter Bhatti says was shortsighted and ill-advised, especially now that religious liberty is under such brutal assault around the world.

You know, we are so lucky here in Canada. We have all kinds of freedom here,” Peter told me on Monday. “But if Canada is going to be a champion of human rights, we should be paying more attention to places where people have no religious liberty at all.”

China is engaged in a brutal campaign involving intensive surveillance and internment without trial in an all-out effort to eradicate the Muslim identity of the Uighur people of Xinjiang. Myanmar continues to evade responsibility for its enforced expulsion of nearly a million Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh.

In Pakistan, the blasphemy law that Shahbaz Bhatti fought against not only remains on the books despite international condemnation. It is increasingly deployed to intimidate and persecute religious minorities and liberal intellectuals. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted under the law in recent years.

Shahbaz Bhatti had been particularly outspoken in the notorious case of Asia Bibi, the Christian farmworker who was convicted on a wholly contrived blasphemy charge and languished on death row for eight years before a high court overturned her conviction in November 2018. Several weeks before Bhatti’s murder, on Jan. 4, 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was also assassinated for protesting the obvious miscarriage of justice in Asia Bibi’s case. Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard.

The judicial reversal of Bibi’s conviction prompted riots across Pakistan. Bibi was placed in protective custody, and it wasn’t until last May that she arrived in Canada—two of her daughters had already relocated here. For the past 10 months, Bibi and her family have been living in Canada on temporary visas, at an undisclosed location and under assumed names for security reasons.

Last week, French President Emanuel Macron invited Bibi to apply for permanent asylum in France, where Bibi is currently promoting her memoir, co-authored by the French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet. Last Tuesday, she was presented a certificate of honorary citizenship from the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. “France is a symbol for me,” Bibi told reporters, adding that Canada’s harsh winters were also a factor in her consideration of France as her permanent home. Besides: [France] was the first country in the world to really support me, and the country from which my name became known.”

While Shahbaz Bhatti’s name has been nearly forgotten in official Canadian circles, his memory lives on among Pakistani minorities and progressive Muslims. Last Sunday, memorial masses in his name were held in Catholic churches across Pakistan. Several commemorations were underway in his honour this week, in the Bhatti family’s home village of Kushpur, and also in the capital, Islamabad. A celebration of Bhatti’s life was planned at the site of Bhatti’s murder in Islamabad, bringing together Muslim and Christian leaders, politicians, diplomats and representatives of the All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance, led by another of the five Bhatti brothers, Paul.

Peter Bhatti’s International Christian Voice (ICV) organization and its supporters will be gathering for a commemorative fundraising dinner in Woodbridge, Ont. on Friday. “But we are no longer mourning,” Peter said. “We are trying to carry on the work of my brother, to continue his legacy.”

A priority for ICV is the resettlement in Canada of Pakistani Christians who have fled to Thailand and are now at risk of arrest and deportation. While it’s easy for Pakistanis to travel to Thailand, the government in Bangkok doesn’t recognize them as genuine refugees. So they end up stuck in limbo in Thailand, and often end up imprisoned in what the ICV calls “intolerable and inhumane conditions” in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre. Working with several churches, the ICV has managed to resettle several dozen Pakistani exiles from Thailand under the federal private-sponsorship program.

The ICV wants Global Affairs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to urge Thailand to stop arresting and incarcerating refugees for repatriation back to Pakistan. Ottawa should also pressure the Thai government to provide Pakistani refugees with temporary asylum, at least, the ICV says. The organization has also asked Ottawa to formally recognize Pakistani Christians as bona fide refugee claimants fleeing persecution, and also to expedite claims filed by families.

Meanwhile, back in Pakistan, the country’s three million Christians—whose heritage goes back to a late 16th century Jesuit mission during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great—are increasingly singled out for spurious blasphemy prosecutions. Over the past 10 years, Christians have been subjected to several suicide bombings, pogroms, anti-Christian riots and the official demolition of Christian neighbourhoods. But it is the blasphemy law that allows extremists to engage the full force of the state most effectively against Christians and other minorities.

There are at least 25 Christians in prison on blasphemy convictions in Pakistan at the moment. Six are on death row. One of them, Shagufta Kausar, has been awaiting an appeal hearing, along with her husband Shafqat Emmanuel, ever since they were both sentenced to death in 2014.

Kausar was Asia Bibi’s cellmate.

Source: Religious freedom is under assault. Will Canada be its champion?

Battle against religious persecution ‘diminished’ under Liberal government: ex-ambassador

Bennett’s comments are not surprising, as the intent of the merger into the human rights division was to encourage a more integrated approach to all rights, which ultimately means a lower profile for religious freedom than provided by a separate office.

Same thing happened when multiculturalism moved from Canadian Heritage to IRCC in 2008 under then Minister Kenney, where it withered away in terms of personnel, funding and importance, and has yet to recover despite its move back to Canadian Heritage:

I agree fully with his call for greater religious literacy among officials (not just diplomats), given the place that religion plays in many peoples lives:

Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom launched thinly veiled criticisms at the new Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion on Wednesday.

Speaking to the Senate’s human rights committee, Andrew Bennett, now a senior fellow with Christian think-tank Cardus, said the “ill-defined and thoroughly vague” concept of “inclusion” could muddy the water and distract from specific religious persecution issues faced by minorities abroad.

Bennett implied the Liberal government’s new office, which replaced his Office of Religious Freedom earlier this year, has a vaguer mandate less focused on specific issues of religious persecution than it did under the Conservatives.

He said more training is needed because there is a “relative ignorance” of religion in the public-service ranks and a “false understanding of separation of church and state” still seems prevalent. To ignore the fact that religion plays a role in public life is “out of step,” “historically inaccurate” and a “very serious diplomatic blind spot,” he said.

“Allies are wondering why there has been a diminishment in focus on religious freedom,” Bennett added, arguing that religious freedom is fundamental and that to prioritize it does not deny attention to other human rights.

“Certain human rights need to be brought to the floor and actively and persuasively championed when they’re most being challenged,” he said. His office could have been louder, Bennett noted, when it came to specific issues, such as the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners and Tibetan Buddhists in China, of Christians in Saudi Arabia and of Shia Muslims in Pakistan.

Bennett said he worked with the new office as part of a transition process, including extending his own network of contacts, until June. But, in the context of a question about the transition period, he said, “unfortunately I was never afforded the opportunity to brief the minister on the work of the Office of Religious Freedom.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion’s press secretary, Chantal Gagnon, said however that the two had met earlier, on Feb. 10, when they “discussed the work of the office.”

In an emailed follow-up statement to the National Post, Bennett said the meeting was held with “no more than two hours’ notice” and that Dion requested “advice on the political sensitivities of the non-renewal of the office” and his relationship with the office’s External Advisory Committee. “But that was not a structured, formal briefing on the office itself.”

Liberal replacement for Conservatives’ Office of Religious Freedoms costs four times as much | National Post

Irresponsible headline: the proper comparison would be with respect to the budget for the previous human rights division plus the Office of Religious Freedoms, which I suspect would show little to no change.

Comparing a basket of apples with one apple:

The overall budget for the Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion, which replaces the Conservative-era Office of Religious Freedoms, could exceed $18 million, according to foreign minister Stéphane Dion.

The office budget was stated at “up to $15 million” in a June press release from Global Affairs Canada. But that’s just the programming budget, according to the response — there’s anther $3.04 million allotted annually to operations and salaries.

That compares to $4.25 million and $720,386, respectively, under the Office of Religious Freedoms.

Since its creation four months ago, the office has been “working to identify programming opportunities,” Dion said in response to a Conservative question on the order paper.

The office is engaging with organizations that already received funding under the previous administration, Dion confirmed, but also “new stakeholders” looking at a broader range of issues including “peaceful pluralism, inclusion, diversity and democracy.”

 Those themes are divided into three divisions, with 36 full-time employees in total: human rights and indigenous affairs; inclusion and religious freedom; and democracy.

Only five people worked for the Office of Religious Freedoms, Dion said.

To focus on indigenous rights abroad could force the government to walk a tightrope, since some Canadian mining operations have been opposed by local populations in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Still, Dion told Postmedia in May he thought “the overwhelming majority of the mining industry of Canada will welcome this focus … they will be willing to work with this office, I’m sure.”

The buck doesn’t stop there for human rights promotion, with Dion explaining that heads of Canada’s diplomatic missions are now “empowered” to speak out about issues in their day-to-day responsibilities, and to media.

“Human rights promotion, including freedom of religious or belief, is now entrenched in our heads of missions’ core objectives and priorities and will be included in their annual performance commitments,” he said.

Source: Liberal replacement for Conservatives’ Office of Religious Freedoms costs four times as much | National Post

Audit: Tories’ religious freedom office was tainted by politics

Hardly surprising.

But unfortunate, as a case can be made for such an office, or a specific focus within the overall human rights agenda on issues relating to religious freedom:

Efforts by the previous Conservative government to promote religious freedom around the world were tainted by the perception of political interference, an internal government evaluation concluded.

The Office of Religious Freedoms positioned Canada as a welcomed world leader on the issue, said the review of the project.

But what it did manage to achieve in its short tenure was coloured by disagreement on how the work should be carried out, a lack of transparency about its goals and concerns the office was biased in its approach to which religions or countries it worked with, the review said.

For example, Christians make up one of the most persecuted minorities, the evaluation noted, so it would make sense for the office to support that group.

“However if this information is not communicated consistently and accurately in the politically sensitive arena, (Office of Religious Freedoms) may be viewed as favouring Christians over all other religious groups,” it said.

“Hence, some stakeholders may interpret actions of ORF as politically motivated. Not surprisingly, the misperception that ORF was a political office was one of the challenges that the office continued to face.”

Extensive outreach with religious groups when the office launched wasn’t enough, the evaluation found.

“The lack of broader and more consistent sharing of information to the public caused inefficiencies and hindered ORF’s own efforts to ensure the office was not perceived as favouring any specific group or religion.”

The Conservatives first announced the office in 2011 but it didn’t start work until appointment of ambassador Andrew Bennett in 2013. The program was motivated by the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was minister of minorities in Pakistan when he was assassinated by Islamic extremists.

The 2011 announcement was met with immediate skepticism. At the time, the Liberals called it more of a domestic political ploy than a strategy for the promotion of human rights.

In theory, diplomats, religious groups and other organizations with a stake in the matter thought the office could be helpful, the evaluation said.

“International interviewees noted that as there were only a limited number of actors and leaders on freedom of religion or belief, Canada’s work in this area was appreciated since it addressed a gap,” the report found.

But there was little consensus about what was happening in practice.

“The evaluation found evidence of increased awareness of freedom of religion or belief with some stakeholders, but not all relevant actors,” said the report, posted online recently by the Global Affairs Department.

Some told the evaluation team the office was too harsh in its public denunciations of religious freedom violations, while others said there weren’t enough statements specific to religious restrictions, such as Sharia law.

Some said the $17 million over four years in program funding wasn’t enough to make a difference, others said small sums of cash were easier to disburse in countries where supporting religious freedom was sensitive.

Since the office took nearly two years to get going, more than half the funds allocated for it were never spent, the review found.

The fact the office was a project without much precedent in Canada or elsewhere explained some of the challenges and since it had only been operating a short time, whether there would be long-term benefits was difficult for evaluators to conclude, the report said.

The office’s budget and mandate was scheduled to end this year. The now Opposition Conservatives and some religious groups tried to pressure the Liberal government to keep it open, but its work was folded into a new Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion.

The evaluation wrapped up in April 2015, but clearly took Liberals’ new approach into account, noting that its sole recommendation for a concrete plan and operational direction was based on the fact the office had now closed.

In its formal response to the review, the department agreed with the recommendation, promising regular consultation, more transparency and better communication.

The Liberals have also pledged as much as $15 million for their new efforts.

Source: Audit: Tories’ religious freedom office was tainted by politics

Liberals’ replacement for Office of Religious Freedom will promote broader range of rights | National Post

Less new than meets the eye and unclear regarding resources(there was an existing Human Rights Division with 14 people) so it may be more repackaging and reorientation:

The Liberals have unveiled a long-awaited replacement for the Office of Religious Freedom, which will now include championing the rights of indigenous peoples abroad.

Canada has a “duty” to speak up for and help indigenous peoples around the world who may be struggling for their rights, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said in an exclusive interview to mark the launch of the new Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion on Tuesday.

“If we are improving, as we hope, the situation of indigenous people in Canada, we have the duty to try to do the same around the world,” Dion said from Vienna. “The situation of indigenous people around the world is worrying. There is a lot of room for improvement, to say the least.”

The emphasis on indigenous rights creates a potential conflict with Canada’s commercial interests, especially in Latin America and Southeast Asia where local populations have opposed Canadian mining operations. But Dion said he believed most Canadian mining companies would welcome the new approach.

“I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of the mining industry of Canada will welcome this focus and will say it’s exactly what they want,” he said. “In order to do good business, you have to have the support of the populations. … So they will be willing to work with this office, I’m sure.”

The new office effectively replaces the Office of Religious Freedom, which the Conservatives established in 2013. Representatives from some faith groups had urged the Liberals to keep the religious freedom office open but the government let its funding expire in March.

Dion described the new office as a “pooling” of the former Office of Religious Freedom’s resources with Global Affairs Canada’s work on human rights promotion. He said the new office will have a budget of $15 million — three times that of the religious freedom office.

Dion said it was a “mistake” to “isolate” freedom of religion from Canada’s broader human rights efforts. The new office’s mandate will include promoting religious freedom, and an official will be in charge of interacting with faith groups and other stakeholders. But the work will fall under the broader rubric of inclusion.

“Inclusion is not only the freedom of religion,” Dion said. “It could be sexual exclusion. It may be political exclusion. So inclusion includes freedom of religion with other aspects of our society. Pluralism. Rights of women. Rights of refugees.”

Source: Liberals’ replacement for Office of Religious Freedom will promote broader range of rights | National Post

In defence of the Office of Religious Freedom: Solomon, de Souza

Nuanced opinion by Evan Solomon, supporting the concept of an Office for Religious Freedom:

We not only ought to be saving religious groups from persecution—that should be basic foreign policy—we need to have a deeper understanding of the impact religions have on societies if we have any hope of making a difference in these conflicts. It’s hard to forget the accounts from the famous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, where U.S. soldiers flying in choppers over Mogadishu hung their feet out open doors. No one told them showing the soles of their feet to the local population was a profound insult, further turning the population against them.

The Office of Religious Freedom was flawed, and never quite lived up to its billing, hobbled by its puny budgets and by the Harper government’s propensity to imbue everything with a partisan mission. But it barely got off the ground, and the core idea is sound. If Canada really is back—this government’s mantra—it had better make sure it takes religion seriously. There is no point in tripling the number of trainers in Iraq if we don’t deeply understand the belief system of the very soldiers we are trying to support, as well as the ones we are fighting.

Conflicts of the future will have twin threats: terror, and the danger of giving in to a xenophobic response. Winning both sides will mean being unafraid to talk about religion, and engaging with religious communities. Without an office to do that, how does this become a government priority?

Source: In defence of the Office of Religious Freedom

And less nuanced support by Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Chair of the former advisory committee:

That reading is rendered more plausible given that the foreign affairs department (now called Global Affairs) undertook no consultations with the ORF’s advisory committee, drawn from religious leaders from across the country. The non-partisan, volunteer group includes many who are in direct contact with persecuted communities around the globe. I am the chairman of the advisory committee, and the new minister’s office never consulted the committee, or its leaders. If there was a commitment to religious freedom, but through a different means, such consultation would have been an obvious starting point.

If the Liberals had a credible plan to advance religious freedom in a world of increasing religious persecution, surely it would have been announced. But since the election, the government refused even to announce its intention to close the ORF, even long after staff was told to look for positions elsewhere. Only last week, when the opposition moved a motion in the House of Commons, did the government declare its decision to close the ORF. Doing that on the day before the budget was released, before a two-week recess of the House, suggests a desire to bury this news. It does not appear that the government even thinks the decision a good one, or has an alternative plan. 

It is also short-sighted. Religious persecution and massacres are on the increase. Should the government decide to launch a particular program, likely more costly than the ORF, to promote, for example, legal rights in criminal justice systems abroad, or political rights in new democracies, or to encourage our authoritarian allies to respect minority rights, then it will be open to the charge that it simply chose not to put a priority on religious freedom.

This week, Dion outlined his foreign policy philosophy as one of “responsible conviction.” The idea is that one stands up for Canada’s convictions, but in a responsible manner, meaning that the objections of those who do not share our convictions have to be generously taken into account, whether it be Saudi Arabia or Russia or Iran. If the closing of the ORF is an example of “responsible conviction” in action, the message will be clearly understood in Riyadh, Moscow and Tehran. Of course, Canada stands foursquare behind religious freedom, but will not raise the matter if it proves awkward. 

Dion himself knows that is the case, as he stressed that “responsible” is not to be understood as an adjective that empties the noun of any meaning. Otherwise he would not have insisted that his new approach should not “be confused with moral relativism or the lack of strong convictions.” The need to emphasize that something is not what it appears to be is the customary way politicians confirm that it is precisely that.

Burying the Office of Religious Freedom

I think most critics of the Government’s decision have overly focussed on the question of the Office and the Ambassador per se rather than the sun-setting of the modest program funds for projects to help support religious freedom, where likely more impact will be felt.

Liberals to let religious freedom office expire on March 31


Mr. Dion confirmed the office’s closure at a global affairs conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.

“Our government shares the same conviction as the previous government, but it assesses the consequences of its chosen method of promoting this conviction differently. I am referring to freedom of religion or belief, which we will defend tooth and nail, but not through the office that the Harper government specifically set up for this purpose,” said Mr. Dion during a speech at the University of Ottawa.

The Liberals have previously indicated their intention to close the office. The office’s mandate expires March 31.

Last week, the Conservatives tabled a motion in the House of Commons to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom. The Liberals voted against the motion and it was defeated 225 to 90.

Prior to the motion, Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, who was appointed by the Conservatives in 2013, accepted a position as a senior fellow at Cardus, a leading Christian think tank. He will also serve as chair of the think tank’s Faith in Canada 150 program while he completes his term at Global Affairs Canada. His new position is voluntary and unpaid with support of Global Affairs Canada.

Mr. Bennett’s three-year term was originally set to end in February, but the Liberals extended it to March 31 to coincide with the expiration of the office’s mandate and $5-million in annual funding. While Mr. Bennett’s future at Global Affairs Canada is unclear, the minister’s office has applauded his work as ambassador.

The Conservatives first promised to create an Office of Religious Freedom during the 2011 election campaign. The office’s mandate is to “speak out and to protect and promote religious freedom around the world.”

While the Conservative initiative was criticized for mixing politics and religion, certain religious groups supported it. In a letter to Mr. Dion in January, Jewish, Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations asked the Liberal government not to scrap the office.

On Tuesday, Mr. Dion reiterated the government’s thinking in determining how to best defend various rights.

“We believe that human rights are better defended when they are considered, universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, as set out in the Vienna Declaration,” said Mr. Dion.

The remaining question is the degree to which future projects focused on religious freedom  will be funded within existing Global Affairs program funds. I expect not absent any declaration to the contrary.

Source: Liberals to let religious freedom office expire on March 31 – The Globe and Mail

Why Canada should keep its religious freedom office: US advocates

More advocacy regarding keeping the Office of Religious Freedom, this time from US counterparts, Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett:

This flurry of engagement is happening for good reason: Religious freedom conditions are deteriorating dramatically. According to a number of studies, at least three-quarters of the world’s people live in countries that perpetrate or tolerate serious religious freedom abuses, ranging from the denial of permits to build houses of worship to the imprisonment, torture and murder of the persecuted.

Persecutors include secular tyrannies such as that of China, which persecutes religious adherents from Christians and Uighur Muslims to Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong; and North Korea, perhaps the most world’s most repressive country. They also include theocratic states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and violent groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, and the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq (among other places).

Thanks in part to the existence of USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom), the U.S. House of Representatives recently gave unanimous approval to a resolution decrying the Islamic State’s horrifying violence against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities as religiously motivated genocide. Others have also deemed it genocide, from Pope Francis to the European Parliament.

For humanitarian reasons alone, silence is no option in the face of those who violate religious freedoms. QBut there is a further reason for concern. Speaking in 2014 about the Middle East, Jean Benjamin Sleiman, the Archbishop of Baghdad, said: “I do not think Europe will be calm. This … does not stop at territorial boundaries.” His words were prophetic: Five months later, in January, 2015, the same religious extremism that was plaguing his own country struck the office of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris.

The lesson is clear. Standing up for religious freedom is not just a moral imperative but also a practical necessity for any country seeking to protect its security and that of its citizens. At such a time as this, Canada should not retreat from its leadership role in advancing this fundamental human right.

Religious freedom merits a permanent seat at the table of a great country’s foreign policy. Canada has given freedom of conscience such a seat through its Office of Religious Freedoms. May it retain this critical seat so long as religious freedom is threatened anywhere in the world.

Source: Why Canada should keep its religious freedom office – The Globe and Mail

‘Religious freedom is under attack’: How a Canadian agency [Office of Religious Freedom] teaches respect where it’s tough to find | National Post

While likely partly orchestrated to keep the Office of Religious Freedom in its current form (rather than programming being folded into the overall human rights organizational and programming structures, some of the examples are nevertheless compelling.

Ironically, had public servants under the previous government carried out similar activities (some did), they were accused of disloyalty and not ‘loyal implementation’:

It’s those deep-seated problems that the Office — amid speculation the new government will shutter its doors — tries to tackle, according to its ambassador, Andrew Bennett.

Courtesy of Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue

Courtesy of Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue Children and mothers take part in a nine-day camp on religious dialogue in Latakia, Syria, in January 2016, funded by Canada’’s Office for Religious Freedom. 

“We’re talking about long-term, multigenerational change. Nothing is going to change in this countries overnight,” Bennett says in an interview.

Bennett describes his office as an advocate both abroad and within the Foreign Affairs department, amid more immediate initiatives like refugee resettlement and aid.

“Within government, in a highly secular country like Canada, we tend not to be very comfortable talking about religion or religious faith,” he says.

“Part of our work is to educate and raise awareness about the role that religious faith plays in foreign policy, and more generally in how people see themselves.”

In one case, Bennett’s staff invited the Mennonite Central Committee, which already runs development projects in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to submit a proposal in December 2014 — four months into Canada’s airstrikes in Iraq.

A Manitoba couple who oversees MCC’s regional work found groups in all three countries, and applied for $500,000 in funding. A fifth of that money supports the three Syrians’ projects, which teach youth to respect strangers. The couple helps the activists manage their budget, tallies their progress and offers moral support.

Laying a foundation for freedom

Though all three activists come from different religions, they all grew up with middle-class families and career goals. They’re now tackling the root of Syria’s conflict, and laying a foundation for when it finally ends.

Rami set up an interactive play that drew 1,200 people. The play starts with a Muslim and Christian neighbour who fall in love, and the end result is determined by the audience’s suggestions.

At one performance, a priest and a sheikh rose to give an impromptu speech on respecting others. At another, scores of displaced people who sleep in a nearby mosque talked about feeling alienated in their new city.

Despite sporadic water and electricity, for three days Rami got 400 people into the basement auditorium of a blown-out building last December.

Emma crisscrosses her country, including territory held by ISIL, to co-ordinate civil society groups.

“When the war ends, people will need to work together,” Emma says. “For peace to last, they have to trust each other.”

The 34-year-old trains groups in managing projects, securing foreign funding and evaluating whether participants are less likely to join terrorist groups. She’s abandoned her dreams of raising a family, and knows her work puts her life at risk.

Alex facilitated a nine-day choir camp in Latakia, one of Syria’s less dangerous cities, where many displaced people have settled.

His team taught 32 children and 22 mothers to respect people of different religions — almost all their fathers are on the frontlines — during the New Year break.

“At first it was difficult because they don’t have the concept of being together,” said the 28-year-old. “But at the end they were singing together.”

All three Syrians admit they won’t see any fruits of success for decades, but say they’re in it for the long haul.

The activists spoke with the Post during a recent regional conference in Beirut, which was funded by the grant. To get to there, each made dangerous taxi trips darting through rebel- and government-held territory toward the Lebanese border.

At the conference, the three learned from local activists who ran similar projects during the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Looking at today’s Syria, Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour recalls Lebanon crumbling in 1975 because adherents to 18 different sects lived parallel lives, building resentment and suspicion among neighbours.

“It’s so good to have children learn about living with each other, respecting each other, before they grow up and have something build in their minds because of no education,” says Jarjour, who founded the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue.

He believes Canada was ahead of the curve in opening the Office of Religious Freedom three years ago, modelled on a U.S. position created in 1998.

Source: ‘Religious freedom is under attack’: How a Canadian agency teaches respect where it’s tough to find | National Post