Let the critics howl over the new Office of Religious Freedom – it's about time we got a little more respect for religion in this country. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister announced Andrew Bennett as Canada's new ambassador for religious freedom. The former Privy Council policy analyst with a doctorate in political science will launch the long-promised $5-million diplomatic initiative.
If you're inclined to believe this is part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mission from God to please the social, religious and ethnic conservatives who elected him, consider a few facts; the need for this office in the Foreign Affairs Department is not about politics, but human rights:
- Widowed mother Nadia Mohamed Ali and her seven children were recently jailed in Egypt for returning to the Christian faith after the death of her Muslim husband. The World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberties Commission reported that Mrs. Ali and her children were each given 15 years in jail. Seven officials at an Egyptian Registry Office received sentences of five years each for processing the change request.
- In Saudi Arabia, police have just arrested 53 Christians for attending worship at the rented home of an Ethiopian Christian in the city of Dammam.
- Four young boys in Burlington, Ont., are still waiting for the return of their father, Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen and Muslim victim of religious persecution. Mr. Celil spoke out for China’s Uyghur minority and was mysteriously arrested in 2006 during a visit to family in Uzbekistan, then deported to China. There, he received a kangaroo court verdict and a life sentence. Mr. Celil now languishes in a remote Chinese jail.
Take a look at the #religiousfreedom topic on Twitter to see the litany of personal examples across faiths and the welcome for the office – proof that the partisan and anti-religion jabs are foolishly misguided.
Still not convinced? Count the dozens of warring conflicts on our planet and try to find one where religion isn't complicit or at least a factor. Cardus analyst Rob Joustra, writing for The Globe and Mail last September, summed it up well: "Not every problem in the world is religious, but almost every enduring solution will require some level of religious accommodation."
The location of the announcement underlined the need. The Prime Minister introduced the new ambassador at a Toronto mosque that has become a refuge for Ahmadiyya Muslims, who have been harshly persecuted in Pakistan.
"There are very few nations that are working hard at religious accommodation. We're one of a few nations who have it right. Canada can be an honest broker in this field," said Richard Landau, author of What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue.
Some may wonder why there is any room for religion in Canada's government, but that's not a question we ask of any other Charter-protected human right.
Before Christianity evolved, scribes took note of Jesus's warning that his followers should prepare for hostility. First there would be resistance, then rejection, then detainment, then abuse, then pursuit, then death. We feel quite smug that it could never happen here, but threats to religious freedom begin at the grassroots level, even before there is official sanction. We don't need to look far in Canadian culture to find examples.
The new Office of Religious Freedom must speak to all levels of hostility. It's up to the rest of us to make sure Dr. Bennett can always point back to Canada as an example of how to protect freedoms.