John Baird’s armoured convoy pushed its way through checkpoints lined with gun-toting soldiers to a little church outside the Green Zone to find the Vicar of Baghdad.
Tall, wearing a yellow bow-tie, and speaking in a loud voice, Canon Andrew White steps forward to help Mr. Baird light an Easter candle in front of photographers at the narrow little St. George’s Anglican church.
Mr. Baird’s visit here is to underline another point, however. Canon Andrew, a British Anglican priest known best as the Vicar of Baghdad, is a preacher of religious pluralism in a country scarred by sectarian division, and today, so is Canada’s foreign minister.
A winding walk behind the church – Canon Andrew uses a cane and suffers from multiple sclerosis – leads to a small, bare meeting room where wait clerics in collars or flowing robes or shirts and ties.
There are representatives of Sunnis, Shiites, Catholics, protestants and Baha’is, who speak to Mr. Baird in English, French and, through an interpreter, in Arabic. Canon Andrew has made it a mission to encourage inter-faith dialogue, not just with Christians but along Iraq’s big divide, between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Mr. Baird points to the meeting as an example.
“That’s religious freedom,” Mr. Baird exclaims when he gets into the back of an armoured car after the meeting. The Harper government has fielded some criticism for opening an office of religious freedom in the Foreign Affairs department, seen by some as a sop to conservative evangelical Christians. Mr. Baird defends its value as an element of foreign policy.
“Yes, religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it’s more than that. It’s about pluralism. Peaceful coexistence.”
Iraq, where Mr. Baird spent Monday during his 12-day tour of the Middle East, provides a setting for the issue. The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is supposed to be a power-sharing coalition with Kurds and Sunnis, but he is accused of sidelining Sunnis. There have been large Sunni protests. Much of the continuing violence is ascribed to extremist insurgents fuelled by Sunni resentment, and it is the reason Mr. Baird is wearing body armour, and Baghdad still looks like a war zone.
“The fact we’re wearing flak jackets – the barbed wire, the concrete. So much of the violence here has been inspired by radicals and intolerance. That’s got to be part of the long-term solution to a more peaceful Iraq – and parts of the world where you do see sectarian violence. It’s not just Christians, it’s Sunni, Shia, Kurdish Muslims.”
He insists he had a “good discussion” with Mr. al-Maliki about it, but pauses when asked if he believes the Iraqi PM is sincere. “You’ve got to take people at face value,” he said.
The Harper government’s interest in Iraq’s religious minorities has in the past appeared to focus more on Christians, including efforts to resettle thousands of Iraqis in Canada, the ranks of whom have included many Christians.
During Mr. Baird’s visit to Iraq’s parliament, a Christian parliamentarian, Yanadam Kanna, asked the Foreign Minister to review Canada’s immigration policy out of concern it is contributing to shrinking numbers of Iraq’s Christian community.
On Monday, Mr. Baird asked often about the state of the Sunni population in meetings with parliamentarians.
In Iraq, a country that has struggled with sectarian conflict, it appears a little ambitious to believe that a Canadian politician asking leaders to take a pluralistic attitude will change much. Mr. Baird argued that if Ottawa can show solidarity with Christians, highlight minority problems and raise calls for pluralism, it will “hopefully inspire” and might have an effect.
“I think it helps. In a small way, sure. But I think it’s worth it. And hopefully if we get more people to do it, it will build,” he said.