On October 3, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird convened a special meeting of about 100 diverse representatives for a consultation on the Government of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.
In his opening remarks Minister Baird said, “history has shown us that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.”
“Canadians enjoy the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society in which human rights are respected. We are also keenly aware of the struggles that religious minorities face around the world,” he continued.
Susanne Tamas, Director of Government Relations for the Baha’i Community of Canada, spoke on one of the panels that served to guide the day’s discussions. In her remarks she drew on a written submission made by the Baha’i community to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, noting the importance of religious freedom as a central value of society and a fundamental human right articulated in international law.
The four-page document points out that “the global challenges to religious freedom remain severe and urgent.”
“Many countries have laws that criminalize apostasy or conversion, outlaw blasphemy, or restrict access to citizenship rights on the basis of religion. Some implement policies that discriminate against religious minorities, recognized or otherwise. Countries may also require people to declare religion on government documents to access public services, provisions that facilitate or implicitly condone religious discrimination.”
“In other countries, laws exist to protect religious freedom but the government appears unable or unwilling to enforce them.”
The document goes on to recognize the complex challenges facing the establishment of such an Office. It recommends the importance of flexibility, a learning approach, and the value of ongoing dialogue with the Canadian public for an issue that is of increasing significance around the world.
The Baha’i submission closes with recommendations related to the role an Office of Religious Freedom can play within the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the importance of a sound relationship of the Office to the Canadian public, and the value of bilateral, multilateral and overseas programming tools in advancing the conditions necessary to religious freedom worldwide.
The Baha’i community’s participation in consultations leading to the establishment of the Office have been motivated by a recognition of the value of the freedom to independently investigate truth and meaning, and an appreciation of the suffering generated by religious intolerance and persecution.
A number of media reports about the establishment of the Office have framed the importance of such an Office in partisan terms, highlighting criticism of the Government’s plans. Such media reports have missed an opportunity to educate the Canadian public more fully about the loss of life, denial of basic freedoms, and the toll in human suffering which the lack of religious freedom causes among so many people around the world who wish to believe in God as they chose and practice their own faith, or no faith at all, free of possible imprisonment, loss of employment and housing, denial of education and suppression of other rights of citizenship, including, for more than a few, execution and physical violence.