Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom joins fray against international persecution

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will join members of Ottawa's elite at an Ontario mosque on Tuesday to unveil a new government office focused on international religious freedom.

The Office of Religious Freedom will officially open in Maple, Ont., as part of the government’s foreign affairs ministry.

The Canadian Press reports that human rights groups and political opponents have accused the Conservative government of inappropriately injecting too much religion into their foreign policy. Others, of course, suggest such a focus is long overdue, calling for stronger measures against religious persecutors.

Wise-acres on social media, meantime, point out that the Office of Religious Freedoms sounds suspiciously like something from George Orwell's 1984.

The trumpet is loud for this new office, but is there much behind it?

After all, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade already addresses human rights issues abroad. The United Nations, of which Canada is a member, also has an office focused on freedom of religion.

[ Related: Federal government to announce Religious Freedom Office ]

In March, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the office will focus on religious advocacy, analysis, policy development and programming. It will have an annual budget of $5 million for the next four years — a moderate cost to be sure.

According to Baird, it will focus on "protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities ... and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad."

Ottawa has in the pointed to the United States' religious freedoms office as a comparison, so perhaps an example of their workflow can be found there.

[ More Brew: How often is religion used to rationalize criminal behaviour? ]

Since it was created in the 1990s under president Bill Clinton, the Office of International Religious Freedom has monitored discrimination worldwide, recommended U.S. policies and denounced regimes believed to persecute citizens on the basis of religious beliefs.

In 2011 the office released a report detailing the issues of religious freedom in various countries, including Canada.

Canada's brief reads, in part:

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom, and in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The government did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom.

Interestingly, the report on Canada also notes a proposal to establish an Office of Religious Freedom under a section titled, "Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom."

This brings us full circle to Tuesday’s announcement, and Canada’s new champion of international religious freedom.

The Globe and Mail reports that the announcement will including the naming of a religious freedom ambassador, a position that three prospective candidates reportedly turned down before it was filled.

It is hard to criticize anything focused on protection religious freedom, but one wonders exactly how this new office will stand out in this already well-covered territory.