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A Uyghur girl is stopped by a line of riot police officers as she watches the parade of paramilitary police officers in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province, in 2009. (Eugene Hoshiko)
A Uyghur girl is stopped by a line of riot police officers as she watches the parade of paramilitary police officers in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province, in 2009. (Eugene Hoshiko)

Desai and Burton

Promoting pluralism abroad must be a foreign policy pillar Add to ...

Religion, in its purest form, can be a force for good. All religions promote values of morality, honesty, understanding and protection for the disadvantaged. Moreover, religion is the key to cultural and ethnic self-identity for people around the world.

But religious differences have long been a source of ethnic clashes within and between nations, including Muslim and Christian conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, the Near East and the former Yugoslavia, the suppression of Tibetans and Uyghurs by the Chinese Communist regime, anti-Semitism, the persecution of Baha'is - the list goes on and on.

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Religious intolerance is unquestionably a major factor in global instability. It's at the root of the suppression of the civil and political rights of ethnic minorities in most authoritarian regimes. It leads to terrible violence that poses a significant challenge to the building of a stable, prosperous and just world order.

So the Conservatives' proposal to create an office of religious freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is an initiative that should be welcomed by all Canadians regardless of their political stripe.

It implies that the government would go well beyond simply monitoring the plight of those persecuted around the world for their religious convictions. What the Prime Minister is proposing is to make the promotion of religious pluralism abroad a pillar of Canadian foreign policy. This would not only put our international aid dollars and generous refugee program in line with this priority, but, more important, would focus the government's diplomatic efforts on a significant issue that Canada has the credibility and moral authority to be a global leader. It's about standing up for religious freedom everywhere in a meaningful way.

While it's easy for Canadians to point out the dark moments of religious, cultural and ethnic intolerance in our own history, from the Chinese head tax to some of the more ridiculous interventions at the Bouchard-Taylor "reasonable accommodation" hearings in Quebec, it's important to note that Canada's experience of immigration to integration is seen as a beacon for other multiethnic and religious societies around the world.

It suggests that Canada has fundamental values, such as the respect for pluralism, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and that we should be proud to share our experience with the world. Our success has not gone unnoticed. The Aga Khan, one of the world's greatest promoters of tolerance, selected Canada as the home of his Global Centre for Pluralism.

This global respect for Canada's pluralistic society has not come just because of our relative tolerance of newcomers but also the willingness of our government and Canadians at large to stand up for those persecuted for their religious, political or cultural heritage. From the Vietnamese boat people to the Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Canada has become not only a safe haven for the persecuted but a society that values where an individual aspires to go rather than where they come from.

The Conservatives' proposal also has the ability to jump-start DFAIT, which has been sputtering to find how it can be globally relevant. Canadians have only recently become aware of DFAIT's diplomatic lag as a result of Canada's failure to win a seat on the Security Council and the flare-up with the United Arab Emirates over landing rights that cost our country a strategic military outpost in the Middle East. These two incidents highlighted DFAIT's inability to find overarching global issues on which Canada has the ability and credibility to lead. They also showed that our foreign policy establishment is too often secluded from the rest of government.

An office of religious freedom, charged with not only developing internal policy but also focusing our international aid, delivered through the Canadian International Development Agency and our refugee program, and managed by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, could provide DFAIT with an opportunity to show its value not only as a policy-maker but as a convener, at home and abroad.

The creation of this office would ultimately make the promotion of pluralism abroad a pillar of our foreign policy. It would help Canada build credibility among our global partners struggling to manage diversity. It would allow Canada to send a clear message of support to persecuted ethnic minorities everywhere. And it would show Canadians that their government is capable of taking the lead on a key global issue in a uniquely Canadian way.

Neil Desai, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is director of programs at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University.

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