The CBC considers the government’s new office of religious freedom.
Other scholars are more blunt in their assessment that with its announcement the Canadian government is essentially entering an international policy minefield. Arvind Sharma teaches religious studies at McGill University who has just completed a book called Problematizing Religious Freedom. Sharma argues that the very concept of religious freedom has become an excuse used by proselytizing religions, particularly Christianity, to convert people. He says that was the clear goal of the U.S. model from the start.
“My concern is that this office will be used… by missionary religions, especially by Christian missions, will be interpreted by them as giving them the right to proselytize,” Sharma says. “I agree that the right to change one’s religion is a part of religious freedom but I don’t agree that my right to change … my religion is symmetrical with somebody else’s right to ask me to change my religion.”
Below, the text of John Baird’s speech on the opening of consultations.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to join you this morning. This is an opportunity to exchange ideas on a key priority for our government: establishing an Office of Religious Freedom.
We announced our intention to do so in the Speech from the Throne on June 3. And I repeated our commitment most recently at the United Nations General Assembly this past week in New York.
This office will be created to promote and protect freedom of religion and belief, consistent with core Canadian values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Most importantly, it will demonstrate that Canada truly is a free society.
Canadians enjoy the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society in which human rights are respected. We are also keenly aware of the struggles that religious minorities face around the world.
That is why, whatever the circumstances, Canada will continue to speak out, and take principled positions. As I said in my address at the United Nations General Assembly, we will not just go along to get along. We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.
All human rights are essential, of course, but today, we come together for a special purpose.
History has shown us that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.
As Franklin Roosevelt observed on the eve of global war:
“Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy.
“Where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared.
“And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.”
Societies that protect religious freedom are more likely to protect all other fundamental freedoms. They are typically more stable and more prosperous societies. This view has been reinforced in consultations I’ve had around the world so far.
I honestly believe it is critically important that Canada is uniquely placed to protect and promote religious freedom around the world.
We are a country of many ethnicities and religions, but we all share one humanity—one of tolerance, one of acceptance, one of peace and security.
Canada has spoken out against violations of freedom around the world.
I’ve voiced strong concern about serious violations of the rights of Iranian citizens to practice Christianity, including those facing charges of apostasy. I spoke up for the Bahá’í community, which continues to face difficulties in Iran with its leaders being imprisoned on unfounded charges.
I spoke out on the discrimination by the Burmese regime against Muslims and Buddhists.
I stand with Roman Catholic priests and other Christian clergy and their laity, as they are driven underground to worship in China while their leaders are detained. And our government has raised the issues of Tibetans, Uyghurs and Falun Gong practitioners at the United Nations.
We stood in solidarity with Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer, who were assassinated by extremists for speaking out against unjust blasphemy laws.
We have called for accountability for the violence faced by the Ahmiddya community in different parts of the world.
We were the first major country to speak out about the attacks against Egyptian Coptics following the events in Nag Hammadi, and we deplored the New Year’s Eve attacks in Alexandria.
And in Iraq, where al Qaeda has driven out many Christians and minorities, we implemented a program to resettle refugees.
This year, our government created an award, the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award, to recognize individuals who show exceptional leadership in defending human rights and freedoms.
It was former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who, during his time in office, championed human rights both in Canada and around the world. On the day he introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament, he spoke these words:
“I am a Canadian, …, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and mankind.”
I pledge to continue this tradition. But I of course can’t do this alone.
And we as a country are compelled to get this right.
That’s why I’m glad each of you is here to share your expertise, insights and experiences.
I’m extremely pleased at the calibre of people gathered here.
I know this is a challenging task, but, then again, Canadians stand for what is right, not what is easy, so I have no doubt we here today are up to that challenge.
It is our common duty to defend the rights of the afflicted, and to give voice to the voiceless.
Our positions will not soften, our determination will not lessen, and our voices will not be diminished until all citizens can enjoy the freedoms and rights we hold to be universal and true.
Through our combined efforts, I am confident that the Office of Religious Freedom can help do just that.
Thank you all for being here.