Father Raymond J. de Souza, National Post
In June 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (now Global Affairs) set up an advisory committee to advise the Office of Religious Freedom and its ambassador, established in 2013. The committee was an expansion of the outreach of the office to various religious traditions – and to non-believers as well – as the membership was widely drawn from across the religious diversity that is found in Canada. Moreover, it was intended to provide the office with additional resources, as many of its members are part of communities with extensive links to countries where religious freedoms are in peril.
Our inaugural meeting was in June and we were scheduled to meet again this winter. However, since the federal election in October, the advisory committee has not been convened. We know from media reports that the status of the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) itself is under review, but have received no information from Global Affairs. Given that the ORF mandate expires at the end of March and no formal announcement on its future has been made, there is much speculation that it will be shut down in a few weeks. We have received no request for our advice. As this is a matter of grave importance, we wish to make our views known publicly.
We firmly believe that the Office of Religious Freedom should be renewed. The foreign policy challenges of the 21st century require our diplomats to know more, not less, about religion and religious freedom. The very positive response from our diplomats to the training offered by the ORF is evidence that they are aware of this need. It is not possible for an effective foreign policy to ignore the critical role of religion, as the Syrian refugee crisis, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the war in Ukraine make clear, to mention just three pressing issues currently engaging Canadian foreign policy.
Religious persecution, often violent and sometimes lethal, is a growing phenomenon. Canada’s ORF, with a few staff and a small budget, has managed to do admirable work in just three years, not only calling attention to the plight of the afflicted, but also providing practical aid. We note the recent joint letter from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the World Sikh Organization of Canada and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Canada, which aptly summarizes our view.
“Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world are the target of threats, discrimination, state persecution, or violence every day simply on the basis of their religion. While we acknowledge that diverse communities are subject to persecution as a result of multiple factors, the suffering of religious minorities in numerous countries is particularly acute and often qualitatively different from other forms of discrimination.
“The Office of Religious Freedom, under the capable stewardship of Ambassador Andrew Bennett, has proven an effective advocate in highlighting the issue of religious persecution, partnering with Diaspora communities in Canada, and raising our country’s profile as a world leader in human rights promotion on the international stage. Perhaps most importantly, we are grateful that the Office is engaged in a series of on the ground programs and initiatives to alleviate religious persecution in various countries (toward which the majority of the Office’s modest $5 million is allocated). While these projects do not always make headlines, we believe they laudably reflect a practical and effective role Canada can play in mitigating the plight of persecuted religious minorities around the world.”
Christian voices, including the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, join Canadian Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists in recognizing the value of what Canada has begun. To step back from that good start now would be to signal, at precisely the wrong moment, that religious freedom will occupy a diminished place in Canada’s foreign policy. Some of those persecuted overseas will materially suffer from such a decision. And all those who noted with approval the decision Canada took three years ago will question whether our foreign policy will be less animated by the robust defence of religious liberty, which is often a cause and predictor of broader human rights and freedoms.
To heighten our focus on religious liberty when it is particularly threatened no more diminishes the importance of other human rights than fighting against climate change diminishes the importance of working for the development of poor nations. Indeed, it is actually impossible to fight for human rights in general; it is always a particular human right that needs to be defended or advanced. In any case, our foreign service officers are both numerous and talented; they can do more than one thing at a time.
We believe that religious freedom ought to be an issue of multiparty consensus. The Office of Religious Freedom was established by a Conservative government; to have it renewed by a Liberal government would demonstrate that Canada’s commitment to religious freedom is not a matter of partisan politics, but an essential part of a principled foreign policy.
The following co-authors are all members of the External Advisory Committee of the Office of Religious Freedom, of which Fr. de Souza is the chairman: Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, C.M., Peter Bhatti, John Gill, Carl Hétu, Pastor Rich Kao, Tsering Tsomo and Christine Williams