Mixing church and state? New religious-freedoms office worries critics

Ottawa, Canada - While Christians in North America and Europe celebrate Christmas by opening gifts and sipping egg nog this weekend, people who share their faith in an estimated 130 countries will be contending with some form of discrimination.

Tens of thousands in Pakistan and China, Sudan and Egypt will risk arrest, torture and death as they seek to mark Christ's arrival 2,000 years ago.

During the spring federal election, the Conservative party proposed creating an Office of Religious Freedom, a body within the Foreign Affairs Department that would cost an estimated $20 million over four years and seek to safeguard religious minorities abroad.

The government has said it will provide more details on the project in the new year.

There is precedent for such an office. In 1998, the U.S. administration of Bill Clinton signed off on a similar initiative, which had been unanimously approved by Congress after nearly two years of fractious debate.

But while boasting successes, the U.S. effort has also experienced its share of controversy, including allegations of bias against Muslims, that it is championing of Christianity, and that it is using taxpayer dollars to pursue pet projects.

To avoid these same problems, experts say, the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom needs to be created in an entirely transparent manner, with decision-making based on data — not politics.

The Conservative government's record to date, however, has been anything but reassuring, critics say.

As a result, there are concerns the office will be used to woo certain religious communities in key ridings to vote for the Conservative party or, worse, that Canadian foreign policy will begin revolving around the advancement of Judeo-Christian faiths.

A growing body of literature has linked religious freedom with democratic rights and societal well-being, highlighting the importance of promoting the ideal.

"Wherever the level of religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, prolonged democracy, and better educational opportunities for women," wrote American experts Brian Grim and Roger Finke in The Price of Freedom Denied.

"Moreover, religious freedom is associated with higher overall human development, as measured by the human development index published by the United Nations Development Program."

In the mid-1990s, Republicans in the United States suggested making the protection of religious freedom a key objective of American foreign policy. However, the proposal was aimed almost exclusively at supporting Christians who were being persecuted in Asia and Africa.

The focus on Christians led to allegations Republicans simply wanted to protect evangelicals and missionaries and, as a byproduct, spread U.S. cultural imperialism.

Over the better part of two years, however, the proposal was endlessly debated in Congress, says Robert Seiple, the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.

"The debate was absolutely essential to keep it from simply highlighting a particular religion and making sure the welcome mat stays out there for folks around the world who need an evangelizing touch," he says.

"That kind of superficiality got scrubbed off and it went deeper into the fact that this really is a human right and it's at the core of human rights."

The International Religious Freedom Act was signed by president Bill Clinton in late 1998. It established a bipartisan commission whose members would actively promote religious freedom through meetings, projects and other means.

An Office of International Religious Freedom was also created within the U.S. State Department, with its core product being annual reports denouncing religious intolerance in countries the world over.

Seiple says the goal was not to focus on any one country or religion, but to ensure the promotion of religious freedom wherever it was under threat.

Equally important, he adds, was that, for the first time, the U.S. government, diplomats and others had a body dedicated to the consideration of religion in foreign policy.

An aversion to mixing church and state in countries such as Canada and the United States means the importance of religion in conflicts and geo-political security is often downplayed, leading to confusion and poor decisions, Seiple says.

"Ninety to 95 per cent of conflicts in the world take place at the nexus of politics and religion," he says.

"So religious freedom has a kissing cousin in security. But from our youth we've been taught not to discuss politics and religion in polite company."

Seiple says the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act created a foundation for ensuring religion was taken into consideration in U.S. foreign-policy circles.

"One of the principles, one of the goals of the office, was to make sure that religious freedom was woven into our foreign policy in a way that made sure it would not fall out," he says.

But in February 2010, several former employees and commissioners of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom alleged racial bias and behind-the-scenes ideology and tribalism in comments to the Washington Post.

"It was predetermined who the bad guys are and who the good guys are," former commissioner Khaled Abou El Fadl was quoted as saying.

"There is a very pronounced view of the world, and it is that victims of religious discrimination are invariably Christian. It was rather suffocating."

Others, however, denied the allegations.

"You could make an argument for or against almost any issue," Thomas Farr, the first director of the U.S. Office of Religious Freedoms, told the Post. "This criticism that any one tradition dominates is a red herring."

On Oct. 3, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird addressed a gathering of faith-based organizations in Ottawa that had been summoned to a closed-door meeting to discuss the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedoms.

Those attending the closed-door meeting had been hand-picked by the Conservative government, as had the panellists, who were to lead the discussion.

Among the participants were religious communities with significant influence in key ridings across the country, such as Ahmadiyya and Ismaili Muslims and Coptic Christians.

The majority of the panellists, meanwhile, had been drawn from large Judeo-Christian faiths: A prominent evangelical Christian, the head of Jewish rights group B'nai Brith, a leader from the Baha'i community, a Roman Catholic priest.

When combined with the reported absence of some larger religious groups, such as Shia and Sunni Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, all of which suffer discrimination as well, red flags began to rise.

"They excluded both the Shia and the Sunni, and we make up the majority of Muslims," says Wahida Valiante, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. "None of them were invited to sit around the table and discuss this."

Valiante could says that including some religious groups but not others sends the wrong message.

"If you ignore your own religious minorities in your own country, then what are you trying to promote in the world?" she asks. "There has to be some advantages as to why they included them and excluded the Shia and the Sunni."

The Conservative government has said it is planning to spend $5 million a year over the next four years on the initiative. Documents obtained through access to information show $500,000 will go to the office; where the rest will go is unclear.

The government does plan to include Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canadian foreign aid agency, CIDA, in the initiative. This implies visas or refugee settlement as well as money to individuals and community organizations representing religious groups enduring discrimination.

Liberal MP John McKay says he fully supports incorporating religious understanding into decision-making at the Foreign Affairs Department and other parts of government. This includes reaching out to communities here and abroad, and at the same time working with other governments to improve the situations in those countries.

"But to me the big flag is just using government money to fund the religious communities that are (the) flavour of the day," he says. "The opportunity for politicization is enormous."

Hani Tawfilis, board member of the Canadian Coptic Centre, says the proposed Office of Religious Freedom is hugely important for the approximately 60,000 Coptic Christians living in Canada, a third of whom are in Mississauga, Ont.

At the same time, he acknowledges the perception the Conservatives are appealing to the community, even if he doesn't confirm it.

"Ican see how they can clearly see that the Copts have an influence in the election," he says. "That we have power politically."

In a blog post, Don Hutchinson, vice-president and legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said he didn't know how he was selected to be a panellist, but he did note his extensive credentials on promoting religious freedom.

"Admittedly, the organizations that I interact directly with on this issue consider international religious freedom matters primarily from the perspective of persecuted Christians," he added.

"However, there's good reason for that. I'm a Christian. And Christians are the most persecuted religious group on the planet."

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based out of Berkeley, California, and one of the most extensive research groups on religious freedom, says 70 per cent of the world's population lives in countries with high levels of religious discrimination.

To that end, Christians, the world's largest religion, are discriminated against in 130 countries, Pew found. But those practising the world's second-largest religion, Islam, aren't far behind, suffering discrimination in 117 countries.

Pew Forum senior researcher Brian Grim says all religions are subject to some form of government-imposed restrictions and social hostility. Data, he argues, are key to determining where issues exist and need to be addressed. So far, however, the Pew Forum has had no contact with Canadian authorities.

Neither, it turns out, has the government contacted traditional human rights groups.

"The development of the office so far has been a very closed process," says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

The grey areas that often result from religion and human rights bumping up against each other are very real, Neve says, and will need a holistic approach, not one driven simply by ideology — or theology, as the case may be.

"Religious freedom can very often butt heads and collide with other human rights concerns, such as lesbian and gay rights, women's rights and freedom of expression," he says.

"Therefore, it will also be crucial that this office will be able to rise to the challenge of grappling with those and not simply dismiss or ignore them."

Liyakat Takim, Sharjah Chair in Global Islam at McMaster University in Ontario, says if the office is to be credible, it must speak out about all discrimination and repression.

To date, however, the government has been extremely selective, vocally highlighting the problems facing Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan and Catholics in China, but remaining all but silent on the crackdown on Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

"I'm fully in support of religious freedom," Takim says, "but we don't only speak out when it suits us."

Despite the fact the participants of the October meeting had been hand-picked and that most if not all could boast of warm relations with the Conservative government, communications personnel had provided Baird with carefully worded answers to a number of potential questions.

"Canada has a proud tradition of defending fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion and belief," Baird was to say if asked whether the government was trying to blur the line between church and state. "History has proven that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable."

Is the creation of this office politically motivated to curry favour with certain religious groups?

"This is about upholding Canada's commitment to defending fundamental human rights, the freedom of religion and belief, opposing religious hatred and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad," Baird's prepared answer reads.

As to whether the office would report to Parliament to ensure complete impartiality, the short answer was no.

"Promoting freedom and democracy is a cornerstone of Canadian policy," Baird was to reply. "For this reason, the decision is made to establish the Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs."