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Sheema Khan

Who monitors our new religious freedom monitor? Add to ...

In last week's Throne Speech, the Conservatives made good on their campaign pledge to create an Office of Religious Freedom to monitor treatment of believers worldwide and promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy.

While the election pledge was seen as a carrot in the Conservatives' plan to woo ethnic communities, others saw the move as a bread-and-butter issue for the party's base of evangelical Christians. Regardless, the new office has set lofty goals - and, as with any political vehicle, noble ends will almost certainly be hijacked by partisanship and inconsistency.

Consider the domestic front. Many recoil at the thought of government promotion of religion, arguing that a secular government has no business doing so. Yet, the government guarantees religious freedom in Canada through the Charter of Rights. So, proponents argue, why not extend this Canadian value to our foreign policy?

But it can get tricky on the domestic front. Consider Quebec's proposed Bill 94, which would curtail access to education and health care to women wearing niqabs. Will the new Office of Religious Freedom assail this practice? Will it highlight the inconsistency of legislation that forbids niqabi women from voting, yet allows mail-in votes? Earlier this year, Tory MP Steven Blaney was set to introduce such legislation (by way of a private member's bill), with the full endorsement of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. It remains to be seen whether the Conservatives will push this bill forward; doing so would certainly dampen their credibility on religious freedom overseas.

Will the new office issue critical reports of countries friendly to Canada that trample on religious freedom? The French ban on religious headgear ( hijabs, Sikh turbans, kippahs) in public schools and niqabs in public comes to mind.

As this office takes shape, it should look at the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom. According to its website, this office, established in 1998, "monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommends and implements policies in respective regions or countries, and develops programs to promote religious freedom." It co-operates closely with the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which recently received a large funding boost.

This commission hasn't been without controversy. For years, "religious freedom" was seen as code for "Christian evangelizing," and the agency's effectiveness had diminished as a result of internal bickering and claims of religious bias. A former staffer recently filed a complaint against the commission, alleging discrimination against Muslims.

So why these initiatives to protect religious freedom abroad? According to Thomas Farr, a former director of the Office of International Religious Freedom, the key factor is the upheaval in the Middle East. He believes that stable democracies can emerge only if religious freedom is adopted by these societies.

The U.S. office's annual reports criticize both America's foes (China, Iran and North Korea) and allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel). The report on Israel, for instance, highlights religious hardship imposed on Christians and Muslims as a result of the West Bank Wall, travel restrictions and the zealotry of Israeli settlers. Will a future Canadian report publish similar findings, or will it remain uncritical of Israeli policies in accordance with prime ministerial directives?

Canadians should closely monitor the Office of Religious Freedom - will it operate on principles or politics?

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