Harper naming ambassador of office of religious freedomDetails about a long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom, and the person who will lead it, are being announced today by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper first promised the new branch of Foreign Affairs during the last federal election campaign.

“This was a platform commitment, to create an office of religious freedom, to make the protection of religious freedom of vulnerable religious minorities a key pillar of Canadian foreign policy,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who is attending the announcement, told reporters on Monday.

The announcement is being made at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque in Vaughan, Ont., a community north of Toronto.

The office is to be housed within the Foreign Affairs department, but the minister, John Baird, isn’t attending the announcement. Baird was in Panama Tuesday after the last-minute postponement of a planned trip to Venezuela. Also attending is International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, whose riding contains the Ahmadiyya community centre.

Janet Epp Buckingham of Trinity Western University, described on its website as offering a “Christ-centred” education, told CBC that the Office of Religious Freedom will act as an advisory body to Foreign Affairs, and will draw on the expertise of ex-pats in Canada about the religious situation in their countries.

Closed-door meeting

In 2011, a closed-door meeting about the office, organized by the government, was criticized by some scholars after it turned out four of the six panellists being consulted were drawn from Christian religions, with the other two being Jewish and Baha’i.

Epp Buckingham said that she was aware of a “wide variety of groups that have had input into the office”.

Don Hutchinson, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, who was one of the six panellists consulted by the government, also told CBC that different religious groups had been widely consulted.

But Colin Clay, an Anglican priest in Saskatoon, who heads both Multi-Faith Saskatoon and Multi-Faith Saskatchewan, said he didn’t know of any consultation with his groups and first found out about the proposed office of religious freedom by reading about it in a newspaper.

Asked if the office might be biased toward Christians, Hutchinson said, “The most persecuted faith on the planet is the Christian faith community. So in striking a balance, one would have to look at the orthodox or Roman Catholic or evangelical communities as well as the needs of the various Muslim communities and the Baha’i and other groups.”

Arvind Sharma, who teaches comparative religion at McGill, told CBC that one of the reasons Christian faiths are the most persecuted is because they are also the most proselytizing in many parts of the world.

“Conversion can mean two things when related to religious freedom”, he said. “My right to change my religion and somebody else’s right to ask me to change my religion. The person who is trying to convert somebody may use deception, may use threat, may use temptation and so on.”

However, Sharma also said, “I see a great opportunity because the office is being set up in Canada and Canada is a self-consciously multi-cultural society, so it has this great opportunity to define religious freedom in a way which is inclusive, which takes the views of all the religions in the world into this view and not just the missionary religions.”

‘It must not become Christian-centric’

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a human rights advocate and his party’s critic on human rights, welcomed the office and noted that religious freedom is a “fundamental human right under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

However, he warned, “it must not become Christian-centric, or it must not appear to prefer a particular religion. In other words, there has to be an egalitarian approach.”

Paul Dewar, the NDP’s critic for foreign affairs, told CBC there had been no consultation with opposition parties about the office. He recalled that when prime minister Brian Mulroney set up the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, also known as Rights and Democracy, in 1988, the opposition parties were broadly consulted.

Rights and Democracy had been created to be a non-partisan, independent Canadian institution that monitored human rights around the world and provided support to democratic groups. The government pulled the plug on it last year.

Dewar said of the office for religious freedom, “If this is all we have to replace human rights protection and democratic development abroad, I think it’s short changing what Canada can do.”

Epp Buckingham, who was also attending the announcement Tuesday, says she had no idea who the ambassador would be.

“I think it is extremely important to have the right person, and it has to be someone who bridge between religious communitiesproselytize and foreign affairs and it also has to be somebody who can work well with a variety of religious groups and religious interests. So it has to be somebody with some very good diplomatic skills,” she said.

(CBC News)