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Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney in Ottawa on Monday Nov. 29, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/ The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/ The Canadian Press)
Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney in Ottawa on Monday Nov. 29, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/ The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/ The Canadian Press)

Tories promise to create office for religious freedom draws skepticism Add to ...

The Conservative campaign platform has injected religion into Canadian foreign policy.

The Tory platform, unveiled Friday, calls for the creation of special office of "Religious Freedom" within the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa.

The function of the new office would be to "monitor religious freedom around the world, to promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy."

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The new office would ensure that Canada protects "vulnerable religious minorities" abroad and would target them in refugee resettlement, or other programs through the Canadian International Development Agency.

"Canada has a proud tradition of defending fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion and freedom of conscience; and our government recognizes that respect for religious pluralism is inextricably linked to democratic development," the platform states.

The Liberals expressed skepticism about the new policy, calling it nothing more than an attempt to pander for votes in various immigrant communities.

The announcement even caught some bureaucrats within the Foreign Affairs Department off-guard.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told The Canadian Press the government would allocate a small sum of money - only $500,000 - and would likely reassign a handful of current full-time employees to the office.

But Mr. Kenney said the platform plank promotes religious freedom as a core principal of foreign policy.

He stressed the government is serious about refocusing Canada's response to violent international incidents such as the killings of Christian minorities in Pakistan and Egypt, Jews around the world, and moderate Muslims who disagree with fundamentalist jihadists.

"We think there's a need to put a particular focus on this. This is something the United States did more than a decade ago through the creation of the Office for International Religious Freedom in the State Department," Mr. Kenney said.

That U.S. office was created under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton and continued by the current Obama administration, Mr. Kenney noted.

"You'd be looking at things, in part, from a religious freedom prism," he explained. "As a champion of human rights around the world we should be entirely comfortable with focusing on the rights of vulnerable religious minorities."

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae suggested the initiative was more about winning support in ethnic communities - groups that Mr. Kenney has been actively courting for the Harper government in its attempts to build a majority government.

"It has much more to do with Canadian domestic politics than it has to do with the necessity of having a coherent strategy for the promotion of democracy and human rights," said Mr. Rae.

"It's more a domestic strategy than a foreign affairs strategy."

Liberal MP David McGuinty also criticized the move as a blurring of the time-honoured line that separates church and state. He said Canada already has a safeguard for religious freedom.

"We have a document in this country that does that, it's called the Charter of Rights."

Mr. Kenney shot back at the critics.

"Perhaps there are some rabid secularists out there who don't understand there are a lot of vulnerable religious minorities under attack around the world," he said.

"To those people who would challenge it because they are uncomfortable with religious faith, I would say, 'Get over it'. We're talking about fundamental rights here."

Mr. Kenney also played down any suggestion that the new policy direction would affect Canada's relations with Israel and the Arab world. The Harper government is often criticized for abandoning Canada's traditionally neutral stance in the Middle East.

"This isn't about the broader Middle East conflict. Although that does have implications whether it is jihadis attacking Christians or Jews or Muslims they disagree with. If it's done on a religious basis, that would be a focus of this office," Mr. Kenney said.

"This is not about putting an additional focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."



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