By Campbell Clark, Globe and Mail, May 24, 2012
In a speech promoting Ottawa’s plans to open an Office of Religious Freedom in the Foreign Affairs department, Mr. Baird spoke of the “moral call” that people like his grandfather answered in fighting the Second World War.
“And yet, after the war, some decision makers lost sight of our proud tradition to do what is right and what is just,” he said in a draft of the speech. “Some decided it would be better to paint Canada as an honest broker. I call it being afraid to take a clear position, even when that’s what’s needed.”
Mr. Baird was speaking to the Religious Liberty Dinner, an annual fixture on Washington’s busy political dinner schedule organized by religious-liberty associations and the Seventh Day Adventist Church – and for the first time ever, hosted at Canada’s Embassy.
Mr. Baird was invited, according to government officials, as a nod from organizers to Canada’s plans to open a $5 million-a-year Religious Freedom Office, inside Foreign Affairs, some time this year.
The plans for the office, with a projected budget half as big as its U.S. counterpart, has been criticized by some as an attempt to appeal to religious conservatives in Canada.
Mr. Baird said the office will “help our diplomats around the world support religious freedom.”
His speech argued that defending religious freedoms cannot be separated from defending other basic human rights.
Mr. Baird’s speech mentioned the persecution of religious groups including Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Baha’i. But it dealt most extensively with the targeting of Jews and Christians.
He spoke of the pogroms against Jews in the Spanish Inquisition, said 6 million died in the 1930s and ’40s because of their religious identity, and said the world cannot risk appeasing “Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran” now “in the same way the world appeased the Nazis.”
He said that Canada now will “stand with the Jewish state.”
Christians now “face particular persecution in countries around the world,” he said, citing persecution in Iran, attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, among other examples. He pointed to a program to resettle Christian and other minority refugees from Iraq as an example of Canadian action.
There is reason for more than a little scepticism about this proposal, from many quarters.
Canada's honest broken role did not stop her from participating in the Second World War, against tyranny, as well as against Jews. Ethnic cleansing must never be tolerated, regardless of the religion practiced by the victims or the perpetrators. However, to concentrate on "religious freedom" as opposed to human freedoms, is to join those who wish to litigate religion in the public arena, including the state.
In the U.S. for example, there is such an enmeshment of the state with religion that the Catholic bishops are taking the Obama administration to court, to challenge the government's right to require Catholic institutions to provide birth control to their students and employees who may not be Catholic.
That may appear, on first blush to be another attempt to separate church from state, but it is really the church attempting to dictate public policy, to bring it in line with the church's teachings.
We are living in a time when religion is being used as a weapon both for and against political power.
Religion is certainly not immune from attempting, just like the insurance and the pharmaceutical companies, to lobby, influence and shape government policy, in North America.
And, while people are being persecuted around the world, and some of that persecution does indeed have a religious basis and bias, persecution, in and of itself warrants prevention, through all of the vehicles open to those seeking to expose, confront and prevent that persecution. Religious persecution by itself merely focuses on putting resources on select, preferred and acceptable religions, at the expense of other religions.
Do we want to join in an initiative that elevates religious liberty above other human rights and freedoms?
Do we think and believe that, because we practice a particular faith, and thereby do not support a different faith, or even a person with no faith, whether they are agnostic or atheist, that we are somehow morally superior?
And when a government, whether a theocracy or an atheistic government attempts to control, manipulate or repress a specific faith group, do we wish to frame that conflict primarily in religious terms, as opposed to framing it as a human rights issue?
This kind of attitude, merging into public policy, does not necessarily "show spine" as Baird would like to think, but rather demonstrates an attempt to attract specific religious groups to a specific political party, and colours that party as a supporter of specific religious, at the expense of other religions.
Spending some of the taxpayers money on such an office, as compared, for example, to establishing inter-faith dialogues, to demonstrating a willingness to see human beings as more than economic units or as voting machines, would go a long way to developing a culture of both tolerance and understanding among and between faith communities, and demonstrate a kind of public policy that cannot and will not be linked by those looking to link it, with political ambition, aspiration and manipulation.
Why are religious leaders in Canada not speaking out against the establishment of this office of religious freedom, asking legitimate questions about why this state (and government) is more interested in aligning itself with specific named religions while at the same time practicing a political philosophy that denies the very tenets of the most basic of faith?