Debate - Office of Religious Freedom
It was Shabazz's legacy and the advocacy work of his family here in Canada which led the previous Conservative government to act to create the Office of Religious Freedom, not some theoretical, political statement about abstract rights, but an office that would and which has made a real difference for people in Pakistan and all around the world.
What is the Office of Religious Freedom? The Office of Religious Freedom was established as a division of foreign affairs, now Global Affairs Canada, in the last Parliament. Incidentally, the creation of this office was announced inside a mosque.
The office has an annual budget of $5 million, which is a modest sum in the scheme of things. This is 1/180th of the cost of the government's recent changes to public sector sick leave and it is well underneath the cost of renovating 24 Sussex Drive.
This office does three main things. First, it provides training to the public service and this training is crucial to help our public servants understand underlying religious tensions and how to advance human rights and Canada's interests in the context of these dynamics.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “...if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today”.
Helping Canada's foreign policy be informed by an understanding of religious tensions is critical in the current environment.
Second, this office does direct advocacy, speaking out about and bringing attention to the plight of persecuted religious minorities.
Third, this office funds direct on the ground projects with local partners in countries like Pakistan, projects which advance religious freedom, and that is where most of the budget goes.
This office has had considerable success but members do not have to take my word for it. Here is what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Consular Affairs), the member for Mississauga Centre, had to say recently about the work of the office in Ukraine:
...As a part of broader efforts to cultivate long-term stability, tolerance, and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, Global Affairs Canada, through the Office of Religious Freedom, is supporting two projects in Ukraine to promote interfaith dialogue and to strengthen the capacity of local authorities to respond to hate crimes.
As the hon. member is aware, the Office of Religious Freedom has advocated on behalf of religious communities under threat, opposed religious hatred and intolerance, and promoted pluralism and respect for diversity abroad.
The quote continues:
...As the Minister of Foreign Affairs has already stated repeatedly, we are grateful for Dr. Andrew Bennett's service as the head of the Office of Religious Freedom and for his ingenuity, sensitivity, and competency over the past three years.
Very high praise for this office from the member for Mississauga Centre.
Here is what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the member for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, had to say recently about the work of the office in Nigeria:
...In its efforts to combat Boko Haram's history of inter-communal violence in the region, Canada, through the Office of Religious Freedom, supported a two-year project to promote interfaith dialogue and conflict mediation in Plateau State, Nigeria. We are well aware of the good work it has done. The project successfully developed a community-based mechanism to help defuse tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, and has been used by the Nigerian government on various occasions, including in response to attacks and bombings in Jos and in the lead up to Nigeria's elections in March 2015. While this phase of the project concluded in January 2015, our government is pleased that Canada has been able to continue to support this model for inter-communal dialogue in neighbouring conflict-affected regions in Nigeria...
Listening to those eloquent words from Liberal members one might wonder who could possibly be opposed to this office? Who could possibly oppose this clearly good and necessary work? Given the evidence and given this good work, one might be inclined to think that it would be obvious that this office should be renewed and I believe it is obvious. However, there have been critics, and it is important to take this opportunity to respond to some of the arguments that the critics have made.
There are some who seem to have something of an allergy to any office of government which uses the word “religion”. They react negatively to any reference to religion in the context of government action. Let us be very clear about this. This office is not about promoting religion. It is about promoting religious freedom. These are two fundamentally different things.
Western democratic governments are not in the business of promoting religion but all governments have to be in the business of protecting freedom, including freedom of religion. Notably, those who ask for state non-interference in religion are themselves expressing support for religious freedom.