Prime Minister Establishes the Office for Religious Freedom
The press release below brought many congratulations but also stirred up a great deal of concern in a Canadian environment already full of debate about the conflicting needs of religious freedom and personal human rights as well as “freedom from religion.” The new Office, staffed by four employees within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, will have a five-million dollar annual budget. The focus will be entirely on other countries, with no reference to interfaith opportunities nor to the intra-faith controversies between fundamentalist, conservative practices and more progressive branches of religions. Following the press release a series of diverse responses offer a flavour of the current public discussion.
Canadian Government Media Release, February 19, 2013
Prime Minister Stephen Harper today announced the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which will be dedicated to promoting freedom of religion or belief around the world. He also announced the appointment of Dr. Andrew Bennett as Ambassador to the Office....
“Around the world, violations of religious freedom are widespread and they are increasing,” said the Prime Minister. “Dr. Bennett is a man of principle and deep convictions and he will encourage the protection of religious minorities around the world so all can practice their faith without fear of violence and repression.” …
Under Ambassador Bennett’s leadership, the Office – which is now operational – will promote freedom of religion or belief as a Canadian foreign policy priority. ...
“Our Government is dedicated to promoting the freedom and prosperity of the people it serves,” added the Prime Minister. “We will work with other countries and all people of goodwill, to promote the principles we share.”
Activities will be centred on countries or situations where there is evidence of egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion, violations that could include violence, hatred and systemic discrimination.”
National Post, Joseph Brean, February 19, 2013: “Andrew P. W. Bennett, Canada’s first ambassador of religious freedom, is a Christian academic studying toward a theology degree in Ottawa, an expert on Scottish devolution, and a government policy analyst with experience in the Privy Council, Export Development Canada and Natural Resources Canada…
“‘I’m very much looking forward to taking on this great challenge,’ he said yesterday at an Ahmadiyya Muslim mosque north of Toronto, chosen for the announcement because the minority sect, which believes in a Messiah who died in Punjab in 1908, is persecuted as heretical in Pakistan. By viewing problems as diverse as the oppression of Tibetans in China, the disenfranchisement of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and violence by Islamists against Christians in Nigeria, through the prism of religious freedom, he said he expects to give a louder voice to foundational Canadian values in a noisy world.”
Canadian Baha’i News Service, March 5, 2013: “The opening of the Office generated considerable media attention across Canada. More than 80 newspaper reports about the Office included a reference to the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, along with many other religions that experience serious violations of their members’ rights. Reports by the Pew Forum have indicated that up to 75% of the world’s population lives in countries where peoples’ ability to freely practice their religion is restricted....
“Central to Bahá’í belief is the conviction that the vitality of religion and the progress of society require that individuals be free to independently search for truth … Protecting religious freedom helps to create the public space for diverse views, whether arising from religious, atheist, or agnostic standpoints. Truly democratic processes require participants to freely contribute their views – from whatever perspective they may hold – and see the spark of truth emerge through the clash of differing opinions. The promotion of religious freedom should therefore not be a concern for the faithful alone because an open, prosperous and democratic society rests upon the protection of this essential value.”
National Post, Mark Kennedy, February 19, 2013: “The government has pointed to a growing body of literature linking religious freedom with democratic rights and societal well-being to justify making the safeguarding of religious minorities abroad a key tenet of Canadian foreign policy. But critics have worried about the government picking and choosing which religions the office defends, and using the institution as a tool for domestic political gain…”
National Post, Charles Lewis, October 23, 2011: “‘I told the people in Ottawa that you have to be careful not to choose people for the office who will be seen as lackeys of the Christian right,’ said Thomas Farr, former director of the U.S. State Department’s Religious Freedom Office. There is a skepticism about religion in large parts of Canada and the United States, he said, and ‘you do not want people to think the office is promoting religious imperialism...’”
Toronto Star, Jeff Green, February 19, 2013: “‘At a time when religious persecution is on the rise around the world, there is “clear need” for an office to champion freedoms and protect against religious crackdowns,’ Liberal MP Irwin Cotler [a former justice minister] said. But Cotler said the office must be ‘pluralistic’ and can’t appear to favour one religion over another. As well, the defence of religious freedoms can’t be done at the expense of other freedoms, like gay rights. ‘It has to be inclusive in its approach to promotion and protection of rights generally,’ Cotler said in an interview...”
Toronto Star Editorial, February 20, 2013: “…There’s a concern, too, that the focus on religion may distract Ottawa from addressing other notorious abuses, including attacks on free speech, assembly and association. Some wonder whether Ottawa will go as far as the U.S. has in criticizing trading partners or allies such as China, Saudi Arabia and Israel for treating minorities unfairly. And what will Ottawa say when religious beliefs clash with women’s rights, gay rights and so on? It’s no simple thing to make religion a focus of foreign policy, and to apply it fairly to persecuted minorities around the world. Bennett has his work cut out delivering on the prime minister’s grand promise….”
Rabble.ca, Joyce Arthur, March 1, 2013: “The integrity of the Conservative government’s newly minted Office of Religious Freedom is already in grave doubt after 10 days of pointed criticism. It’s a noble-sounding endeavour, but it suffers from too many unanswered questions, glaring incongruities and serious omissions. Given that it’s the right-wing Conservative government behind the initiative, it carries a high risk of being Christian-centric, with a primary focus on the persecution of Christian minorities...
“Confidence is not increased by the appointment of the Office’s new ambassador, Dr. Andrew Bennett. Harper has hailed Bennett as a scholar even though he has virtually no published writings and his academic experience consists largely of being a part-time dean and teacher at a tiny evangelical school in Ottawa. A devout Catholic, Bennett subscribes to his college’s Statement of Faith, which requires strict doctrinal adherence to a fundamentalist version of Christianity and the literal truth of the Bible... How will the Office of Religious Freedom negotiate the highly volatile terrain of religious strife and intolerance between competing groups without seeming to favour one faith group over another, and without risking an angry backlash or even violence from the side doing the persecuting?
“Moreover, the understanding of religious freedom takes many different forms, especially in a culture with a religious majority. The protection of one group of adherents might lead to discrimination against another vulnerable group... It wasn’t until the press conference launch of the new Office on February 19 that the government suddenly declared that non-believers would be included too, after being challenged on the issue. ‘All people of faith and, again, those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected,’ said Dr. Bennett.’”
Canada Newswire, February 27, 2013: “In a statement released this afternoon, the Moderator of The United Church of Canada, the Right Rev. Gary Paterson, welcomed today’s Supreme Court ruling that says there are limits to freedom of religion when it comes to hate speech. ‘Freedom of religion is not absolute,’ says Paterson. ‘It does not include the right to engage in religiously motivated hate speech, and it does not extend to conduct that harms or interferes with the rights of others.’”
Canadian Centre for Diversity Thriving
“Peer Leaders Network” in 40 Schools!
“I am delighted to reach out to you in my new role as Board Chair to provide you with some updates. The Peer Leaders Network is now in 40 schools across Canada! Expanding our programs to more students in more locations, gives them the opportunity to participate and explore issues of diversity and promote inclusion in their schools. This is important work. Students who complete the program become inspirational leaders who continue their commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their post-secondary studies and professional careers, thus helping to build a Canadian society without prejudice and discrimination. It is a bold vision, and we are committed to making it happen.
“We are expanding our social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr, and are thrilled to launch our new blog, Peerleaders.ca. Each of these communication vehicles highlights our important social mission focusing on youth, leadership and diversity. Please connect with us and become part of the conversation that is helping Canadians to See Different.”
Sincerely, Janice O’Born, Chair, Board of Directors
Top Award, Best International Documentary Short Film, Interfaith Harmony Film Festival 2013
Scarboro Missions’ “Animating The Golden Rule” Movie Honored
Dear Film Director Tina Petrova,
Congratulations to you and your film Animating the Golden Rule for winning the top award for BEST INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILM at the 2013 World Interfaith Harmony Film Festival.
Through self-directed explorations in art, music, rap and drama skits, teenage youth explore ways of embodying the core values of “The Golden Rule” of 13 of the world’s great religions. Do unto others as you would have them do to you... propels the viewer on a journey of discovery, giving life to what many consider to be the most consistent moral teaching throughout history. The Golden Rule can be found in many religions, ethical systems, indigenous cultures and secular philosophies.
From the Interfaith Harmony Film Festival
TakingIT Global (Canada) Winners in United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and BMW Group Intercultural Innovation Award
27 February 2013
The Viennese Volkstheatre was host to the UNAOC and the BMW Group last night in celebration of The Intercultural Innovation Award, with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Placido Domingo in attendance. The coveted international award is part of an unprecedented partnership between the UNAOC and the BMW Group. Designed to contribute towards social stability and economic growth in multicultural societies, the award is given to innovative grassroots projects promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding…
5th Place: TakingITGlobal (TIG) Online Community (Canada)
As the leading creators and adopters of information and communication technologies, young people are the driving force behind the emerging global information society. TakingITGlobal (TIG) works at the intersection of the growing youth demographic, globalization, and the rise of the information society to empower young people as active global citizens and agents of change. TIG serves youth worldwide with innovative education programs, currently available in thirteen core languages. Young people from all linguistic backgrounds are effectively connected to learn and act together in TIGs ‘social network for social good.’
New Survey Suggests Quebec Residents Feel Increasing Sense of Attachment to Religion
Randy Boswell, Montreal Gazette, February 18, 2013
The nationwide poll commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies shows that the sense of “attachment to religion” among Quebec residents has edged upwards in the past two years, even as it appears to have waned in several other parts of the country — most noticeably in Alberta. The effect of the shift is that regional differences in the reported depth of Canadians’ faith are now “near insignificant,” with just a little over one-third of the population — fairly consistently across the country — expressing a degree of attachment to religion. But there were notable shifts in religious sentiment within different parts of Canada. In Quebec, for example, the proportion of respondents expressing some form of attachment to religion rose from 26 per cent in the 2010 poll to 34 per cent in the latest survey…
For decades following the Quiet Revolution — which was in large part a reaction against the powerful historical influence of the Roman Catholic Church in shaping Quebec’s social institutions — the degree of attachment to formal religion in the province was well below that exhibited in other parts of Canada. And while the current Parti Quebecois government has plans to introduce a “charter of secularism” to restrict the use of religious symbols in the public sphere, the proposal would also protect certain displays of Quebec’s deeply Christian roots — such as a large cross in the provincial legislature — as expressions of cultural heritage….
CANADIAN EVENTS AND OPPORTUNITIES