By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Secretary Bob Dechert told a Parliamentary forum Apr. 2 an ambassador will be named soon to head the Office of Religious Freedom.
Dechert, who has been overseeing consultations for the new office that have been taking place across Canada, told the 2nd Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom and Governance the Canadian government is committed to making religious freedom a pillar of foreign policy. He did not announce a date for the office’s establishment, but said it will have a budget of $5 million.
As a lawyer and student of human rights for the past 30 years, Dechert said he thought Canada was an example to the world that would inspire other countries to emulate. “I thought every year it got a little better; if we waited long enough the world would look like Canada.”
But Dechert told the 150 representatives of religious groups, among them many who had experienced persecution in their native lands, that over the past ten years he has realized things are not getting better, but “a lot worse.”
“We’re going to point out the importance of religious freedom and point out where religious freedom is in jeopardy in places around the world,” he said, noting that societies that respect religious freedom are also more likely to be stable societies that respect other human rights.
Hosted by Conservative MP David Anderson, the forum featured politicians, an imam, representatives of Cardus, a think tank that examines religion and religious institutions in civil society, and Sun TV host Brian Lilley. International Christian Voice founder Peter Bhatti joined Anderson in making opening remarks. The brother of assassinated Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, Bhatti named Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Sudan among countries that restrict religious freedom.
Bhatti said he worked for seven years in Saudi Arabia where no non-Muslim may publicly hold their religious books or preach without facing prison and a possible death sentence. Pakistan was created a secular state with religious freedoms, but after the founding father’s death, rulers used religion to pursue vested interests and keep power, he said. His brother was assassinated for advocating the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. “He spent his whole life to liberate the oppressed, victimized and downtrodden Christians and other religious minorities from persecution, intolerance, discrimination and human inequality,” Bhatti said.
Cardus president Michael Van Pelt, whose think tank researches the role of religion and religious institutions in the public square, told the gathering that the importance of religion is often not reflected in current human rights discourse, which tends to ignore the importance of civil society.
Van Pelt cited a number of examples where ignorance of religion or fear of religion raise concerns about religious freedom at home in Canada. He noted that in some modern city plans there is no reference to religious institutions or places of worship. In a recent Ontario election, the issue of funding of religious schools became the trump card that defeated Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory, he said. The subtext, was fear of radical Islamic schools, he said, and a willingness to “make other religions pay a price to prevent them.”
“What does that tell you about religious freedom in our own back yard?” he asked.
Lilley said religion stories do not often make it into print media or if they do, they get relegated to the back pages. The mainstream media and Canada’s elite classes do not understand the importance of religion, he said. He said he tells young journalists that it is necessary to understand religion if they want to understand the world.
Though there are a large proportion of committed religious believers of all kinds in Canada, the mainstream view is that religion is something other people and other cultures do, something exotic, or something “knuckle draggers in the southern United States” do, he said.
Like Van Pelt, he stressed religious freedom is under threat in Canada even the freedom of parents to teach their beliefs in their private homes. Governments are not only becoming co-parents, but attempting to become co-pastors, he said, citing one Ontario politician’s insistence the Catholic Church change its teachings in the Catechism on homosexuality.
He urged people to use the power of social media to spread the stories about religion that do not make it to the newspapers, but still may be published on mainstream media websites. He warned however that anyone entering into the fray will be called a bigot or hateful based on having religious beliefs.
“Be fearless,” he said. “Don’t worry about offending non-religious believers or believers of other religions.”
“Religious freedom for one means religious freedom for all,” he said. “If religious freedom can be taken away in Canada or in other countries, all other freedoms can be taken away.”
Conservative MP Scott Reid said religious discrimination can become active persecution when the state or majority religion sees people converting or groups proselytizing. In China, the persecution of Falun Gong began when the government saw the converts as a challenge to the regime, he said. The Chinese government also feels challenged by the unauthorized Christian house churches.
Reid said Canada must defend the individual right to follow one’s conscience and blasted attempts to pass laws that protect religions from defamation. Anti-religious defamation laws “essentially provide cover for states to pursue those who are converting from a state-sponsored religion,” he said.
Freedom of religion must include the right for open, vigorous debate of ideas, he said.
Former Liberal MP Mario Silva who now chairs the International Forum for Rights and Security said there is a need to make sure people are talking about the same thing when they speak of religious freedom.
Silva noted Pakistan’s blasphemy laws not only allow Christians to be targeted, but also other religious minorities, including Muslims who do not toe the majority line. “In Afghanistan, the situation remains fragile and will become more so with the pull out of allied forces,” he warned.
On a recent visit to Afghanistan, Silva said it was impossible to discuss issues of apostasy or blasphemy. “It was the single taboo topic of non-discussion,” he said. “People would walk out of the room because people fear for their lives.”
Imam Mohamad Jebara, the founder of Cordova Academy, gave the gathering a positive view of Sharia Law. He chanted in Arabic a passage from the Koran that he translated as upholding religious freedom, saying “there is no compulsion permitted when it comes to religion.”
He described Sharia as the “path to the best abode, the best way of life.” He cited a history of religious tolerance in the Muslim world, and explained the special or dhimmi status of non-Muslims as a form of elevation and respect. “Religious intolerance is not acceptable in Islam,” he said. “All of the stories we have heard about intolerance are contrary to the faith, contrary to the law and what the Prophet teaches and the tradition throughout Islamic history.”
One member of the audience, who came from Pakistan, came to the microphone and described Jebara’s view as a “Disneyland version of Islam.” Another suggested the imam should take his message to countries like Pakistan and Egypt where religious minorities are persecuted .