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foreign policy

Men light candles during a candlelight vigil in commemoration of assassinated Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, in Lahore.

The Harper government is preparing to carve out a new role for Canada as a champion of religious rights abroad, another sign of the Conservative shift in foreign policy and one that has roots in the tragic 2011 assassination of a Pakistani cabinet minister.

Early in 2012, the Tories will finally flesh out a campaign promise to install the Office of Religious Freedom within the secular confines of the Department of Foreign Affairs – a controversial pledge that has drawn accusations of vote pandering and blurring lines between church and state.

The Conservatives are unapologetic about making a defence of the right to worship a central objective of Canadian foreign policy, noting, as a recent Pew Centre study found, that assaults around the world on religious freedom have increased in recent years.

They say however it was a charismatic Pakistani foe of religious persecution that helped clinch their decision to create the office – a man who visited with Prime Minister Stephen Harper only weeks before he was shot dead in Islamabad.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was the first Pakistan minister for minority affairs and the only Christian serving in the Islamic state's cabinet when he died on March 2, 2011. A militant Islamist group claimed responsibility for killing Mr. Bhatti, who had been urging reform of blasphemy laws.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who's also the party's point man for outreach to new Canadian voters, said Mr. Bhatti made a major impression on Mr. Harper when they met in early February, 2011.

"The Prime Minister was deeply affected by this as was everyone who had the chance to meet him," the minister said. "His visit to Canada shortly before his assassination helped to galvanize within the government the reality of this kind of persecution."

The Conservatives say they were impressed by Mr. Bhatti's refusal to stop fighting religious intolerance despite death threats.

"Just before I brought Shahbaz to meet the Prime Minister, I told the Prime Minister it would be a miracle if the man he was about to meet would be alive in a few months' time," Mr. Kenney recalled.

The minister said he counselled Mr. Bhatti against returning home – to no avail.

"Shahbaz was very conscious that in returning to Pakistan he would be facing not just the possibility but also the likelihood of assassination," the minister said.

"I pleaded with him to consider staying in Canada, but he insisted that he had to be in solidarity with his people."

The new Conservative office – which will publicly criticize regimes that mistreat religious minorities – is in part a workaround to avoid the pushback the Tories previously encountered from the Foreign Affairs bureaucracy. Conservatives privately complain that civil servants in some instances resisted their efforts to raise concern about religious persecution.

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, for one, offers qualified support for the new office.

He said it can "turn a Canadian spotlight on people in danger" and can provide the persecuted "with the protection of visibility and concern."

But he says it can't be a tool for pressure groups the Conservatives hope to appease in Canada.

"It's a good thing provided it defends all cases of religious persecution, not just those that are bothering domestic constituencies at home, and that it doesn't ignore other human-rights violations, which usually accompany religious persecution, like limits on freedom of the press, denial of democratic rights and persecution."