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Evaluating Harper’s Office of Religious Freedom

The ORF was established with the aim of helping religious communities around the world – has it lived up to its mandate so far?

By: /
15 October, 2015
By: Samane Hemmat

Samane Hemmat is a Ph.D. candidate studying religious freedom and international development policy at Osgoode Hall Law School. 

With the federal election days away, and the spotlight on the current government’s accomplishments and follies, an unprecedented initiative of Prime Minister Stephen Harper comes to mind: the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), which was announced in February 2013 at Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at in Toronto. Deemed a positive step forward for democracy, the ORF was established as a response to “the wishes of Canadians to stem the persecution, violence and repression directed against many religious communities around the world.

If a Conservative government is re-elected, Prime Minister Harper has promised to provide additional support to the ORF to the tune of $9 million dollars. These funds will be spent on a three-year program focusing on persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East. The program will collaborate with organizations operating in the region to protect places of worship and religious artifacts that are under threat of destruction by ISIS.

How has the ORF performed so far and is it a successful initiative? Which religious groups and countries has it been paying particular attention to and why? How does it determine which religious persecutions to highlight and which oppressions to take a backseat? And, finally, do its actions align with the reality of religious persecution world over?

A closer look into whether the Office’s actions align with global trends may be revealing of whether this initiative truly promotes Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance aboard, or, as critics suggest, is merely pandering to ethnic and religious minorities in Canada.

On observing the press releases of the ORF, it appears that Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups are the three major recipients of the Office’s support. Statistics from Pew’s Research Centre on Religion and Public Life (Pew Forum) indicate that Christians and Muslims face harassment in the largest number of countries, while harassment of Jews in 2013 had reached a seven-year high. Nonetheless, Christian minorities have garnered almost twice as much of the attention of the ORF as compared with Muslim and Jewish communities. From amongst the Muslim minorities receiving support, the Ahmadiyya Muslim minority in Pakistan, who have a small but strong presence in Canada and were foundational in supporting the establishment of the ORF, are the most consistent recipients of its assistance. Compared with the far more numerous Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities whose adherents also face persecution in several countries, the Ahmadi Muslims represent only about one percent of all the world’s Muslims. The ORF has also released press statements speaking out for Christians in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, China and the Central African Republic, though paying special attention to Christian minorities in Pakistan and Coptic Christians in Egypt, a strong population of who have immigrated to Canada.

Interestingly, given Canada’s own experiences in developing inclusion practices for its Aboriginal citizens, the ORF has not spoken out in defence of Indigenous or other folk religions internationally. The Pew Forum reported that folk religions, which include African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, and Aboriginal religions, were persecuted in 34 countries in 2013, a significant rise from previous years, and the trend is becoming more widespread.

On looking at countries that have the highest levels of religious persecution, according to the Pew Forum’s findings when both government restrictions and social hostilities are taken into account Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Russia stand out as having the highest levels of persecution. Thus, it appears that the ORF’s focus on Egypt and Pakistan, and recent funding of projects in Indonesia and Burma, is a realistic reflection of persecution in the world. Conspicuously absent from its discourse however is any mention of religious freedom in Afghanistan, Russia, and India – India having the highest levels of social hostilities in the case of religion.

Similarly puzzling is the ORF’s focus on Ukraine, which falls amongst the lowest ranking countries in terms of Pew Forum’s government restrictions and social hostilities index. Moreover, while Iran has a high rank amongst countries with severe government restrictions, the ORF has focused its efforts on religious freedom for primarily Bahai’s in Iran. The religious minorities suffering abuses in Iran include Baha’is, Christian converts, Sunni Muslims, Jews, and Zoroastrians. It may be interesting to note here that the Baha’i community in Canada was one of the select guests invited to consultations held by the government on the establishment of the ORF.

In order to really understand this pursuit by the Harper government to promote religious freedom abroad and evaluate the success of the ORF, there are some foundational questions that still need to be addressed. What counts as religion for the ORF? How does it decide which religious minorities to support and which to ignore? What exactly is being protected, and engaged, and with what consequences?

While there has been no shortage of rhetoric surrounding the benefits of promoting religious freedom abroad, there have been no efforts made to invest in better understanding the implications underlying the ORF’s agenda and the subtle consequences it may be having on religious affairs overseas. Are Canadians supporting an endeavour that might be exacerbating situations in fragile and politically tense environments, worsening the very problems they are designed to resolve? According to scholars like Elizabeth Hurd and Winnifred Sullivan, religious freedom advocacy is not the answer to violence and oppression; to the contrary, such efforts are likely to mask the true causes of conflict, and harden lines of division between communities. “You cannot both celebrate religious freedom and deny it to those whose religion you don’t like,” Sullivan wrote in 2014, in an essay on “The impossibility of religious freedom.”

Critics of the ORF have suggested this initiative is simply taking resources away from conventional Foreign Service work, where the money would be better spent. Before committing more funds to this ambiguous endeavour, it may be wise to first seek answers to these critical questions.

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