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Christian women hold pictures of slain Pakistani Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti. (ATHAR HUSSAIN/REUTERS)
Christian women hold pictures of slain Pakistani Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti. (ATHAR HUSSAIN/REUTERS)

This niche election promise is a very good idea Add to ...

The Conservatives' proposal in their election platform for an office of religious freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is a good one - both for refugees and for members of religious minorities who do not want to leave their native countries.

In Iraq, the persecution of Christians and other less well known religious minorities, since that country became chaotic, is a salient example. There is little reason to suppose that the Shiite-led government actually favours that maltreatment, but it is not zealous in the minorities' defence against fanatical militias - policing having become shaky ever since Saddam Hussein's despotism came to its sudden end. Western diplomacy can at least hope to exert some influence and pressure.

Christians are by no means the only victims of religious persecution. Some versions of Taoism and Buddhism are leaned upon by the authorities in China. In Pakistan, Sufi and other liberal Muslims have recently come under increasing attack from jihadist groups. In Iran, it is at least arguable that Baha'is, members of a syncretistic religion partly derived from Islam, are treated by the theocratic regime even more harshly than liberal-democratic dissidents.

In the short to medium term, the wave of democratic protest in the Middle East may add to the difficulties of religious minorities. In Egypt, since the departure of the oppressive Mubarak regime, enforcement of law and order has somewhat slackened, and there have been attacks on Coptic churches by Muslim extremists.

The Canadian office of religious freedom would have a modest budget of $5-million, but that is a point in its favour. It can nudge and help, but cannot single-handedly change trends abroad. Moreover, Canada is not alone in the developed world, and the DFAIT office could co-operate with similar agencies elsewhere. In particular, the U.S. State Department has had an Office of International Religious Freedom since 1998 - which may well be the model for the Canadian Conservatives' idea.

Without unrealistic expectations, Canada can and should help both religious refugees and other religious believers who are determined to remain at home and keep the diversity of their homelands alive.

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