The creation of a new Office of Religious Freedom within Canada’s Foreign Affairs department has been generally panned as “pandering” to ethnic voters. It is anything but …
A look at the provenance and profile of a similar American institution offers a few useful lessons. The Office of International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 after Congress approved legislation requiring the State Department to draft an annual report on how religious liberty was faring around the world. While the American Office has unfailing produced these reports, they have not been the kind of lightning rods that they might have been – not even during the presidency of George W. Bush.
That outcome is not surprising given that U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright did not read too much into its creation. “This landmark law has made identifying and condemning all forms of religious persecution an integral part of U.S. foreign policy and has caused American diplomats to become more comfortable and practiced as raising the issue.” She called it a “litmus test” for dealing with other governments.
We don’t see the Canadian version being any different. Foreign policy-making is a matrix, and, with the creation of the new Office, religious liberty may have gained greater significance. But, it is highly unlikely that Ottawa will determine its diplomatic course on this one factor alone.
After all, it’s been widely reported that the idea for the creation of such an Office came in the wake of the killing in Pakistan of its minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, in March, 2011 – two months before the last federal elections. It is germane to speculate what our newly-appointed ambassador of religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, would have done had the assassination happened on his watch. Bennett’s office would be expected to issue a vociferous statement and he himself may decide to travel to Pakistan to lend Canada’s heft to the global outcry. But, would it make a whit of difference to minorities in Pakistan? Would they feel or be any safer because Canada has spoken out?
Also imagine Mr. Ambassador of Religious Freedom meeting Saudi Arabia’s new interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, whose regime regularly jails expatriates for practising any faith in the holy land of Mecca and Medina. The outcome is likely to be no different in meetings with Chinese, Azerbaijani, Iranian, Nigerian or Malaysian leaders, for all of whom “non-interference in internal affairs” is a helpful rallying cry.
So, what’s the point? In the days following the announcement at a mosque north of Toronto, commentary has focused mostly on how standing up for persecuted faith communities in foreign lands may be a political winner with new immigrants. It is true that most New Canadians believe that we should stand up to totalitarian regimes, even if it amounts to nothing more than whistling in the wind. It could be an extension of our “soft power” and the drip, drip influence of moral suasion.
But that does not make the new Office a sop to immigrants as much as it is a recognition that Canada’s political centre-of-gravity is shifting away from a largely godless constituency to a new critical mass of citizens for whom faith is an important dimension of their lives. The first demographic would rather have the government set up an Office of Freedom from Religion – as Mary Jane Chamberlain of Toronto said in a letter to the Globe and Mail – while the second prefers an Office of Religious Freedom. This Office is a nod to the faithful.
It is again instructive to quote Albright (from her book The Mighty and the Almighty, 2006): As I travel around the world, I am often asked, “Why can’t we just keep religion out of foreign policy?” My answer is that we can’t and shouldn’t. Religion is a large part of what motivates people and shapes their views of justice and right behaviour. It must be taken into account. – New Canadian Media