24

In defence of the defunct Office of Religious Freedom

The office was certainly flawed, writes Evan Solomon. But the core concept was sound.


 
Iraqi relatives and friends mourn on March 26, 2016 in Iskandariyah, a town about 40 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad, during the funeral of some of the victims of a suicide bomb attack in a nearby village the day before. A suicide bomber blew himself up on a football pitch as trophies were being presented after a local tournament, killing at least 30 people, police and medics said. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. (Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi relatives and friends mourn on March 26, 2016 in Iskandariyah, a town about 40 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad, during the funeral of some of the victims of a suicide bomb attack in a nearby village the day before. A suicide bomber blew himself up on a football pitch as trophies were being presented after a local tournament, killing at least 30 people, police and medics said. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. (Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images)

In the age of terror, some deaths appear more equal than others. The horrific terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and the Easter attack in Lahore, Pakistan, rightly shocked the world, but just three days after Brussels, 29 people were slaughtered at a soccer match near Baghdad. It hardly registered a hashtag. Back in January, 86 people were massacred in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Do you recall a march? Do you even recall an image? What about recent attacks in Ankara or Damascus? It is tragically hard just to keep up, let alone calibrate an appropriate reaction.

But a condemnation of our collective empathy deficit is cheap self-righteousness. The more important question remains: what’s driving so much of this terror and what is the proper response? The questions are urgent not only because of the noxious bromides Donald Trump passes off as a coherent response to security issues, but because here in Canada, the Liberals have confirmed their intention to shutter the Office of Religious Freedom. Is that the right call?

Founded by Stephen Harper’s government in 2013 with a paltry $5-million budget, the Office of Religious Freedom was meant to advocate on behalf of threatened communities and support persecuted religious groups. Schoolbooks on pluralism were purchased in Bangladesh, while Aga Khan Foundation Canada got $290,000 for a similar program, $400,000 went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, $500,000 was channelled to the Mennonite Central Committee to work with youth in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on inter-religious dialogue, etc. The money was widely distributed.

Related: Making a terrorist on the streets of Brussels

Still, the office was subject to heated debate. Critics said it was proxy for evangelicals, and a cover for Conservative outreach programs into ethnic communities. A study done by the online publication OpenCanada revealed that Christian minority groups got the lion’s share of the funding.

For all that, it must be said that the debate over the renewal of the mandate of the office showed Parliamentarians at their finest: cogent, thoughtful arguments on all sides.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis argued that the office “is not about promoting religion. It is about promoting religious freedom. These are two fundamentally different things.” Had many people even heard of the Yazidis in Iraq until the U.S. confirmed ISIS was committing genocide against them, as well as against Christians and Shia Muslims? Genuis said the office has been crucial in supporting and raising awareness of these issues.

On the other side, NDP MP Cheryl Hardcastle pointed out that the Conservatives’ commitment to the office was pure hypocrisy, especially in light of their 2012 decision to scrap the highly respected and non-partisan International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, alongside cuts to groups like the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, whose party supported the creation of the office in 2013, argued that religious freedom doesn’t need its own office because all human rights are “indivisible, and interdependent.”

Fair enough. There are many ways to do the work of the office, possibly more effectively. But the bigger point keeps getting lost, and that is to return to what Justin Trudeau once called the “root causes” of terror. Alongside the usual suspects like poverty and post-colonialism, one of the root causes is religion itself. In their own twisted ways, most terror groups are oriented around religious texts and practices. Every religion has its violent fanatics, but currently the extremist Islamist threat is ascendant. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about that out of some misplaced loyalty to multiculturalism or secular society.

“There are some who seem to have something of an allergy to any office of government that uses the word ‘religion,’ ” Genuis rightly argued. “They react negatively to any reference to religion in the context of government action.” In government, religion is like sex. People do it but don’t talk about it. That has political consequences.

Related: Europe’s crisis of competence boils over

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?


 

In defence of the defunct Office of Religious Freedom

  1. What we is more freedom FROM religion.

    Bronze age fairy tales have no place in the 21st century.

    • Emily,

      Though you and I are both athiests, the goal of the office was not to spout off about religion. it was to protect PEOPLE who are religious.

      People being the key word. Christians are being slaughtered and forced out of their homes across the middle east. There are very few Jews left in the middle east outside of Israel, but those who do remain are under constant threat of attack by their muslim neighbours.

      • James, it is part of the Christian myth that they are being persecuted…they are not, and never were, even in ancient Rome

        There is no reason that society at large should protect any religion/folktale

        • Emily,

          Clearly your strong point is not history. If you want to see what christians are going through today in the middle east…..just turn on any TV set.

          Really, if you are going to make a comment, at least take 30 seconds to think about it beforehand. That way you can prevent yourself from looking like a completely uninformed idiot (again).

          • James, you are talking utter rubbish

            And, please don’t tell me again that you are an atheist, because that is also rubbish

          • There is genocide directed against Christians in many parts of the world. Whether the government should concern itself with that is a fair question. Given that about 70% of Canadians identify as christian, which is about 3x the number that votes for a governing party at most times, it wouldn’t be unreasonable that the government would concern itself with Christians, though I don’t really believe the 70% figure translates into much other than Xmas presents. It certainly isn’t church attendance.

          • Rod, People are used to putting down “Catholic” or “Protestant” on government forms, but they don’t follow the doctrine and they don’t attend church anymore

            There is no genocide against the Christians. In fact, there is no genocide against any religion.

          • Emily,

            I am an athiest. I’ve found that folks who believe in GOD are quite vociferous in defence of their beliefs. In fact, many thousands of Christians in the middle east have been murdered or tortured because they refused to deny their faith.

            and that is the entire point.

            You on the other hand, apparently just want to comment on any posting because you like the sound of your own typing. The fact your typing displays your weak and ineffectual thought process is another matter entirely.

          • James, you don’t even know what the word “atheist” means.

            Nor do you know anything about the ME

            And attacking me, is what you always do when you lose an arguement

          • EMily,

            Couple of points.

            I wasn’t trying to WIN an argument with you. I was just trying to explain how you are still wrong. I doubt anyone who has read our “exchange” thinks you WON anything. all you have done is show that you remain clueless.

            And to be frank, I have never attacked you. As usual, like most “progressives’ you seem to think that anyone who says anything you don’t agree with is an attack.

            you are the Lucy Coutere of the macleans site.

            Only not as trustworthy.

          • And there you go on another attack, after yet another lost argument

            All of this is a matter of public record

  2. The world is moving towards anarchy … some would say ‘too fast’. Therefore, new rules, specifically with anarchy in mind must be introduced. For example, let us withdraw government funding of religious institutions, e.g., schools, churches, madrasas, and mosques. Imagine how that will slow down the flow of economic migrants when it is seen that, here, God (Allah) does not have almighty power.

  3. I think Mr Solomon has his answer as to why the office of religious freedom was closed. He explained it.

    “But the bigger point keeps getting lost, and that is to return to what Justin Trudeau once called the “root causes” of terror”. The answer as written by Mr Solomo “one of the root causes is religion itself. In their own twisted ways, most terror groups are oriented around religious texts and practices. Every religion has its violent fanatics” Is that not a reason to not promote religion.
    What we should be doing is minimizing the power of religion over people over a long period of time. Otherwise the rights of individuals can be taken away by the majority based on religious beliefs. Example of that is what is happening in various states in the US.

    • Segundo,

      What is happening in the various states in the US is all politics between two democratic parties.

      The problem with Justin Trudeau is that he lacks the capacity to state the obvious because he doesn’t want to lose the Muslim vote in Canada’s big cities. The only religion that is causing problems today is ISLAM. In fact, for its entire existence, ISLAM has caused more death and destruction than any other faith.

      It is a faith that turns its adherents into barbarians and animals for the most part.

      • James, that is simply not true

        Christians have racked up more bodies than anybody

        Who do you think were running the concentration camps in WWII?

        • Not Christian! Certainly not actual Christians. For instance when the Nazis invaded Poland their Sonderfahndungsliste, a thick little book, of the specific cadres of the ruling/elite who were to be assassinated included all Catholic clergy. Nazis were not friends of Christians, and there was nothing Christian about their aspect.

          • If you are implying that Hitler killed more people than anyone else, by jumping on his example, then you have bad information. Hitler killed 10-20 million in his exterminations, and probably aggravated the paranoia of the bigger monsters: Stalin, 23 million, and Mao 50-75 million. Neither of the last two were conspicuous Christians, more typically what are known as atheists, depending on what you call communism.

            Nobody on the top ten list of all time monsters is a religious person. Leopold was number 4 on the list and he was probably either christian or brought up christian, but his genocide was part of a personal business enterprise. Pasha was racially pro Islam, but I don’t know whether he was spiritually directed by Islam, he seems mostly pragmatic.

          • Emily wrote:

            “All German soldiers wore a belt buckle that said “God is with us”

            Actually, Emily, in German it is “Gott Mitt Uns”

            And it was a statement similar to that found on some currency, “In God We trust” or in the Canadian Constitution. Simply saying, or writing the word GOD doesn’t make one a Christian. A christian is an actual believer.

            You really are shallow aren’t you?

        • Emily,

          It was the NAZI’s running the camps, and it was the Government policy of the day for Germany. It wasn’t the church, or the mosque, though today, it is those on the left (or progressives) who along with the Muslim Hoardes pose the biggest threat to Jewish people.

          As for knowing what is, or is not true, I guess the best solution is to read what you write, and then assume the opposite is true in most cases. Because as anyone on this site can see, you are wrong about 99% of the time, and just get lucky the other 1%.

          • James, stop being an ASS

            I put the phrase in English, because I knew you wouldn’t understand German and I was right.

            Are you not aware, the Jews were vilified for 2000 years because the Catholic Church said they killed Jesus, now look at the photos from the link above.

            And again, you attack me

          • Emily,

            I don’t need anyone translating German for me. I was just correcting your post (again). I am actually getting used to correcting you, but I’m sure you don’t appreciate it.

            And again, disagreement is not an attack.

            If I were to attack you, I would mention that this is the first time you have admitted Jews were treated poorly. Because in every other post about Jews or Israel, your comments could have been lifted straight from Mein Kampf, or the Palestinian news Network.

  4. I am glad that the “Office of Religios Freedom” is gone. Although there may have been some areas in which they did something- it appeared to be heavily biased towards evangelical Christian groups- (see money that was given).
    The UN, and other aid groups can help people who are in difficulty- handing out bibles should never be the duty of a secular government.
    I am surprised that Solomon took this on-I thought he was more politically astute.
    We do not need religious bodies influencing the government. I see their hand in attempting to block assisted suicide, and I am horrified.
    Thank you, Liberal government, for getting rid of this blatant attempt by the last lot to pander to their base.

Sign in to comment.