Saturday, January 21, 2012

Office of Religious Freedom (Canada)

Opponents Criticize the Office 
The swirl of criticism around the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) distracts from the more important issue of the role of religion in world affairs.

The ORF will be a branch of the Foreign Affairs Department. Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird has said the office will promote religious freedom; he has not said how the office will accomplish this. The Canadian government's evasiveness on just how an ORF would promote religious freedom calls into question the authenticity of the government regarding this challenging task. 

The ORF is being criticized for other reasons. Some see it is a ploy to curry favor with Evangelical Christian voters, further a right wing Christian agenda, and promote Judeo-Christian traditions. Others argue that the office will violate the separation of Church and State.

Religious Freedom is a basic and inalienable human right
There is no argument that the state needs to be concerned with violations of human rights. Article 18 of the Universal Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes religious freedom as a basic and inalienable human right. When human rights are under attack, the nation state has a moral obligation to intervene. When a nation state orchestrates, participates in, or countenances human rights abuses, that moral obligation shifts to the international community. We are our brothers and sisters keepers.

The promotion and protection of religious freedom is within the purview of secular, liberal democracies. The equality and dignity of people are at stake when nations restrict religious freedom, or tacitly approve of religiously motivated hostilities. Secular democracies tend to ignore the importance of religious freedom at the peril of global stability.

Loss of religious freedom increasing
Religious minorities around the globe are experiencing a loss of religious freedom. In 
its report, “Restrictions on Religious Freedom,” the Pew Forum notes that government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices, and religiously motivated social hostilities are on the rise. (The Pew Forum is a non-partisan organization that explores the role of religion in world affairs.)

Between 2006-2009, restrictions rose in 23 countries. There was social or government harassment of Christians in 130 countries, Muslims in 117, Jews in 75, Hindus in 27, Buddhists in 16, and Other in 84 countries. 

Government restriction of some religious practices is not necessarily a bad thing. When a religious belief or practice infringes on another individual’s basic human rights, governments should intervene. Canada ranks low on religious restrictions but Canadian law restricts polygamy because it harms children and women. Constitutional rights or laws that protect religious freedom must never allow those freedoms to cause harm to others.

Restrictions become a cause for concern when a government violates the spirit of Article 18. If a government favors one religious group, officially recognizes one religion, defers to religious authorities in matters of policy or law, interferes with the independent operation of religion, and either encourages or permits social hostilities against religious minorities, it violates the inalienable right to freedom of religion.

One third of the world’s population lives in the 23 countries with rising religious restrictions. Civil conflict in some of these regions of the world, notably the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, has significantly impacted the foreign policy of Western nations. Given the sheer number of people in the regions most affected with religious restrictions, there is the potential for escalating conflict. Western nations would be prudent to consider religious freedom in foreign policy development.

Canada has a proud tradition of championing human rights, of which religious freedom is one. On its website, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade does not even list the promotion of human rights as a priority for 2012, despite the creation of the ORF. This raises the question, “How important can the ORF be?” 

The Canadian government appears disingenuous. The office looks like optics, rather than a genuine attempt to promote religious freedom, thereby helping to create a more stable world community.

Relevant Links:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms

Article 18.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

For the Forum's report,  "Rising Restrictions on Religion," visit:

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