Skepticism about Tory plan to promote religious freedom

Montreal, Canada - While Christians in North America and Europe celebrate Christmas by opening gifts and sipping eggnog 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 also has experienced its share of controversy, including allegations of bias against Muslims, that it is championing 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.

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 Shiite 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 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.