New office to protect religious freedom

Politics and religion went to bed together and the offspring is the Office of Religious Freedom. Announced in the June 2011 speech from the throne, the federal government’s intent to establish the office has roused ample interest and speculation.

Formal consultations on its development were launched in Ottawa on Oct. 3 and attended by religious leaders, academics and representatives of religious organizations.

John Baird, Minister of International Trade and Foreign Affairs

John Baird, Minister of International Trade and Foreign Affairs - Photo by Canada2020, Flickr

In his address, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, articulates that the office’s mandate will be “to promote and protect freedom of religion and belief, consistent with core Canadian values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Set to operate within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Office of Religious Freedom will have an expected $5 million annual budget, and a relatively paltry $500,000 operational budget.

Baird states that “it is critically important that Canada is uniquely placed to protect and promote religious freedom around the world,” and that the establishment of the office “will demonstrate that Canada truly is a free society.”

Robert Daum, founding Director of the Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre and Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Jewish Thought at the Vancouver School of Theology at UBC, agrees with the sentiment, adding that “religious freedom is a good benchmark for other freedoms.”

Robert Daum, founding Director of the Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre

Robert Daum, founding Director of the Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre - Photo courtesy of Vancouver School of Theology

Daum, who is also a rabbi, points out that because Canada principally leads by persuasion and collaboration rather than force, we have to pursue a range of policy options and tactics to support collaborative efforts in the defence of fundamental Canadian values and interests.

Yet exactly how the department will tackle this grand undertaking remains largely undefined.

Director of Religion and Islamic Education for the B.C. Muslim Association, Aasim Rashid, notes that while the scope is unclear, the expectation is that the office would establish and maintain good rapport and clear lines of communication, particularly with the major religious organizations across Canada.

Explicitly because issues have religious, cultural and social implications, Rashid expects that the office will approach authentic scholars and sources to form an understanding of a particular religion or issue, rather than turning to laymen not qualified to accurately present the denomination’s official position. In addition, he anticipates that the understanding will arise from consultation with the masses of that religion: the mainstream rather than the “minorities within the minority.”

To avoid riding a see-saw of competing interests in the protection of one freedom over another, Daum explains that while religious leaders and scholars should definitely be included in public policy discussions, the office should avoid giving preferential treatment and rather judge claims solely on merit.

Tom Cooper, president of City in Focus, a Vancouver-based organization seeking to promote unity within the Christian community, foresees potential for conflict with other governments or perhaps local religious groups that would be threatened by “an open, tolerant, diverse view of religious expression.” However, he also expects that local organizations will be minimally impacted by the establishment of the office, as its focus will primarily be on the international arena.

While the criticism around potentially inappropriate political courting and engagement is rooted in just cause, Daum warns that “any fool can reduce complex problems to simplistic formulae, like warning of the dangers of politics and religion getting into bed together.”

“If this office can support the efforts of oppressed communities and individuals abroad, help Canadians to understand better the complexity of foreign and trade policy, and strengthen the ties between diverse communities … so that we can be a more just society, it will be a significant achievement,” explains Daum.

“This is a complex initiative, and we should give it a chance to see what emerges.”