OTTAWA — Muslim extremists firebomb Christian churches in northern Nigeria. Chinese communists imprison the faithful. Christians in Burma were attacked during the Christmas season.

In response to these and other threats to religious liberty around the world, Canada’s Conservative government is planning to open an Office of Religious Freedom this spring.

The office will be modeled after the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom, and opponents are already recycling criticisms first used in 1998 when the U.S. created it as part of the State Department. To the evident confusion of many Canadians, the same legislation set up the quite separate U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom. The latter, which is semi-autonomous and stands accused of pro-Christian bias, barely escaped extinction in December, as a last-minute reform bill gave it another three years’ funding but cut its budget and forced seven commissioners to resign.

Father Raymond de Souza, a columnist for the Toronto-based National Post, is a participant in the government’s consultation process about the new office.

“This is a very good idea. Religious liberty has always been the first liberty,” said Father de Souza, a former Rome correspondent for the Register. “The freedom of the English Church from the English monarchy was the first thing in the Magna Carta. Freedom of religion is the first right in the U.S. Bill of Rights and in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If the state controls that, all other freedoms are in peril.”

Critics of the office include Dalton McGuinty, the premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. Missing the point of the office entirely, he said Canada already had a safeguard for religious freedom.

“We have a document in this country that does that; it’s called the Charter of Rights [and Freedom],” he said.

When the Conservatives promised to create the office, during the run-up to last summer’s decisive election victory, they won the support of the opposition Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff. But Ignatieff, a foreign-affairs expert, stepped down after his party’s seats were halved. His replacement, Bob Rae, has accused the Conservatives of creating the office to pander to ethnic and religious minorities.

“It has much more to do with Canadian domestic politics than it has to do with the necessity of having a coherent strategy for the promotion of democracy and human rights,” said Rae.

The charge of vote pandering arose from another prominent Liberal, strategist Warren Kinsella, a one-time chief of staff to then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien. He blogged 10 reasons for not having the office, but several appeared to contradict each other.

Reviewing invitees to a government consultation in October on the office, he complained that there were no Hindus, and while Muslims were present, they did not belong to the two most numerous Islamic sects, leaving his readers to wonder how ignoring the largest voter blocs could be considered pandering.

Other objections included the office’s expense — $5 million a year — and the fact that it won’t be bipartisan, like the American office, an advisory body independent of the administration.

Kinsella’s critique incorporated persistent claims about the U.S. commission’s pro-Christian bias with current left-wing concerns about the Harper government’s presumed pro-Christian perspective and accused the Harper government of cultural imperialism for foisting its Christian values on other countries.

‘Obliged to Stand Up’

But those who do care about religious rights disagree. Allen Hertzke, presidential professor of political science at Oklahoma University, calls the Canadian move “an exciting development.” What’s more, Canada’s not being a superpower is an advantage. “Whenever the U.S. raises the issue, it is always open to criticism, as a superpower, of having mixed motives. Canada doesn’t carry that baggage.”

As to what business Canada or the United States has monitoring or complaining about religious-rights violations elsewhere, Hertzke said, “We’ve heard that criticism a lot in the U.S. But, in fact, both countries are obliged to stand up for religious freedom and for other human rights in international forums, as are all signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It is perfectly legitimate for Canada to call other countries, including the United States, to account on how they are living up to their obligations.”

Hertzke dismisses Kinsella’s criticism that the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom has shown a pro-Christian and anti-Muslim bias.

“That was raised when the law creating the office was being debated, but today it is usually heard only from Islamic leaders who want to divert attention from religious-rights violations in their countries. If anything, we see the State Department bending over backwards to appear unbiased by focusing on Muslim-on-Muslim persecution or Christian-on-Christian.”

Voice to the Voiceless

However, the same cannot be said for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission has nine commissioners, three each appointed by the Senate, the House of Representatives and the president. While the Office of Religious Freedom reports annually on every country, the commission reports only on problem countries.

According to Hindu activist Suhag Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, the commission not only ignores many “hot spots” of religious persecution, such as Malaysia and Syria, because Christians are not the victims there, but the whole intent of the U.S. religious-freedom laws is to enable “predatory proselytization” by Christian missionaries in countries where other religious predominate. Shukla applauded the shrinking of the commissioners’ terms, which will result in seven of the nine incumbents stepping down, most of them Christian.

This criticism even found support from within the commission itself, according to Janet Epp Buckingham, one of the evangelical participants in the Canadian government’s consultation. “USCIRF itself made some statements after the [Canadian] announcement, [saying] ‘Don’t make the mistakes that we did. This office should be multi-faith, multi-religious, representing many communities out there experiencing religious persecution.’ That is a self-criticism they would make.”

Meanwhile, Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, said religion can have a “contentious relationship” with other human rights, such as homosexuality and women’s rights. And Kinsella ended his list of reasons with this: “Throughout history, many [wars] have started at the intersection between faiths.”

But Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, the outspoken Catholic who engineered the Conservative Party’s successful wooing of ethnic minorities, is unapologetic about the office.

“Perhaps there are some rabid secularists out there who don’t understand there are a lot of vulnerable religious minorities under attack around the world,” said Kenney. “To those people who would challenge [the office] because they are uncomfortable with religious faith, I would say, ‘Get over it.’ We’re talking about fundamental rights here.”

Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, was equally frank at the General Assembly of the United Nations in announcing the creation of the office.

“It is our common duty to uphold the rights of the afflicted, to give voice to the voiceless,” Baird said. “As citizens of the global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the aggressor, to protect and promote human rights and human dignity, at home and abroad.”

He went on to defend Israel and condemn its attackers, along with oppressive regimes in Syria, North Korea, Libya, China and Iran. As well, he faulted the United Nations for making a mockery of its own principles.

Push from Evangelicals

The push for the office came from Canada’s evangelical Christian churches. Though they comprise a much smaller slice of the religious pie in Canada than in the U.S. (under 10%), evangelicals are the only Christian group that is growing, and their influence with the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is significant.

Some of the concern about the new Canadian office is that the Conservative government has provided only the vaguest details: It will have a staff of five, an operating budget of $500,000 a year and a total annual budget of $5 million. This has raised questions about where the non-operational funds will go. The American model suggests it will be granted to nonprofit organizations and individuals who are champions of religious freedom.

The Canadian government clearly believes that registering official concerns about violations of religious freedom across the globe will have an impact.  But does the American office actually make a difference? Hertzke says it does, though not in the way intended by the legislation, which requires the U.S. government to impose one of a range of sanctions on countries that seriously oppress religions.  Hertzke contends that this rarely happens. Instead, when a country is already being sanctioned for something else, religious oppression is added as a reason.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped create the original International Religious Freedom law in 1998 and supported the December reform bill. Virginia Farris, the USCCB’s foreign policy advisor and a State Department veteran, says USIRF and USCIRF act as a “good cop-bad cop” team to challenge international bad actors through both closed-doors, country-to-country talks and (from USCIRF) strongly-worded condemnations. Both organizations’s reports “do put people on notice that certain behavior will be raised,” she said. USCIRF, because of its independence, has also been able to be proactive in raising concerns about the genocide in the Sudan and in lobbying at the UN. Four bishops have served as commissioners.

What have turned out to be the most powerful tools for both USIRF and USCIRF are their respective annual reports, says Hertzke. USIRF’s report is especially authoritative and influential, because it relies on original research by State Department operatives.

Hertzke also believes that the investigations leading up to the reports have an important impact on State Department staff that might otherwise spend their time on economic affairs: the necessity of compiling data leads them to spend time with minority religious leaders.

Joseph Kung, founder and director of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, dedicated to defending the underground Catholic Church in China, says of USIRF and USCIRF, “They are doing a helluva good job. We need them to tell the world what is going on.”

Kung said that without USIRF and USCIRF nobody would know what was really being done to Christians in China, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.