Michael Den Tandt: A serious approach to religious freedom should begin at home

Montreal, Canada - As they get set to roll out Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom, Conservatives face suspicion from opposition benches, as well as from left-leaning human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International, that this is a clumsily-disguised attempt to curry favour with Christian evangelicals.

It’s a fair question. If the Office of Religious Freedom, to be established as a sub-branch within John Baird’s Department of Foreign Affairs, becomes a vehicle uniquely for the defence of Pakistani Catholics or Egyptian Copts, it may do more harm than good. Rather than protecting the right to have faith, the government would be perceived as aligning itself with one faith, Christianity, over all the others.

If, however, Baird truly intends to champion religious freedom globally for all, including those who choose to be agnostic or atheist, then he has a great deal of important work ahead. For rarely, judging from the latest report from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religious Freedom, have there been more instances of governments violating people’s inalienable human right to worship as they please, or not worship at all.

Al-Qaida, still the reigning champions of theistic hatred, in 2010 attacked Sufi, Shia, Ahmadiyah and Christian holy sites in Pakistan. The Taliban assassinated Abdullah Haleem, who was director of hajj and religious affairs in Kandahar. Iraqi extremists attacked the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad, killing 50.

State use of apostasy and blasphemy laws is on the rise, according to the State Department, most worryingly against Muslims who promote interfaith tolerance. In Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, converting to any faith but Islam is considered apostasy and punishable by death.

Anti-Semitism is flourishing on every continent, as seen in desecrations of cemeteries, racist graffiti, accusations of blood libel, Holocaust denial and other historical revisionism. In 2010 there was a rise in anti-Semitic cartoons in print in Poland, Spain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

In eight states in Germany now, teachers are not allowed to wear Islamic head scarves in schools. In the state of Hesse, civil servants may not wear head scarves at work. In Burma, the Theravada Buddhist-dominated authoritarian government restricts the practice of Christianity, Islam and any strain of Buddhism other than the majority’s. In Russia in 2010, the state levied criminal charges against people in possession of banned religious literature.

What can Canada hope to do about any of this? Perhaps a fair bit. Baird’s new office will have considerable resources — an annual budget of $5 million and, according to sources familiar with the project, a staff of five.

In a speech trumpeting the initiative last October, the minister’s heart seemed in the right place: “We are a country of many ethnicities and religions,” he told an Ottawa audience, “but we all share one humanity — one of tolerance, one of acceptance, one of peace and security.”

Baird insists that Canada will not “go along to get along,” but rather take strong stands on issues of principle. Good.

One caveat: This office is to have an entirely foreign focus — hence its location in Foreign Affairs. I would argue that, if Canada is serious about religious freedom, the government should advocate for it at home, as well as abroad, even across jurisdictional lines.

Religious freedom should include the right for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and atheists not to hear the Lord’s Prayer before meetings of municipal councils, for example. At last count more than a dozen municipal councils in Canada’s most populous province were still praying in a uniquely Christian way before meetings, in spite of a 1999 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that this contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Ontario Legislature does the same thing. The House of Commons and the Senate recite non-denominational prayers. Among the provincial legislatures, only Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Ontario still recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The elephant in the room, when it comes to religious freedom in Canada, is education. Why is it that in Ontario in 2012 there is a publicly funded separate school system for Catholics, but not — as was debated in the Ontario election in 2007 — for Jews or those of other faiths? Arguably, given the multi-ethnic nature of Canadian society, all Canadians should be educated in secular public systems, with faith nourished — or not — in the home.

Championing religious freedom abroad is laudable. But we should examine our own house, too. Given the abomination of theistic strife, complete separation of church and state should be holy writ. It isn’t — even in Canada. Why not?