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March 15, 2013

Question:  What do you think is the most pressing issue facing Canada’s ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom?

Sound reasons exist for establishing this Office. It would be helpful to view the new ambassador’s role in light of Canada’s foreign policy, and the universality of human rights, particularly as expressed in Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” A 2012 study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found increased levels of religious persecution around the world, constituting egregious violations to freedom of religion and belief. The Pew Forum reported in 2010 that fully 75 percent of the world’s population “lived in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion.”

The ongoing, organized and systematic persecution of the Baha’is in Iran, which continues unabated, is only one of many examples of the violation of freedom of religion and belief in today’s world. The website outlining the background to the new Office gives as its formal mandate: “protecting and advocating on behalf of, religious minorities under threat; opposing religious hatred and intolerance; promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.” The Office will focus on “countries of situations where there is evidence of egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion.”

No one in today’s global society should be imprisoned, harassed, executed or persecuted for changing her religion, or for teaching, practicing, or observing the rituals or laws prescribed by same. The Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council, Heiner Bielefeldt, has recommended that the status and legal standing of this universal human right should be greatly strengthened. The newly appointed ambassador, Andrew Bennett, the Catholic dean of a Christian college, would serve the public interest well by engaging in fulsome explanations of his mission. As far as possible, close attention to the most serious cases of religious persecution inflicted on any or all world religions would serve the new Office well.  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen March 15, 2013
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