OTTAWA — Muslim extremists firebomb Christian churches in northern Nigeria. Chinese communists imprison the faithful. Christians in Burma attacked during the Christmas season.
In response to 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. “Religious liberty has always been the first liberty,” Father de Souza said. “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.”
Objections to the new office include its 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.
Allen Hertzke, presidential professor of political science at Oklahoma University, calls the Canadian move “an exciting development.” 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 U.S. has monitoring or complaining about religious-rights violations elsewhere, Hertzke said, “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 a 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.”
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 religions 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 Warren Kinsella, a onetime chief of staff to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, 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: “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.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.