02/25/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

3 Questions About Canada's New Office of Religious Freedom

Having recently returned from Egypt after interviewing several Muslims and Coptic Christians who face a daunting future together in an unstable political, economic and religious quagmire, the Canadian government's newly minted Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) seems to me a worthy endeavor that is nevertheless not without its potential pitfalls. Sure, several naysayers and skeptics have predictably emerged from the secular humanist woodwork to voice their disapproval, even though Stephen Harper has clarified that these developing initiatives will support "faith choices or non-faith choices." But despite an unsettling cluster of Conservative MPs who hold Dominionist and Christian Reconstructionist loyalties, the precedential void that this new Office has yet to fill suggests that a "wait-and-see" approach is more prudent for the time being.

I don't, therefore, necessarily share the concerns of Liberal MP and the party's critic on human rights, Irwin Cotler, who cautiously commended the creation of the new Office while pointing out its counterproductive potential to become "Christian-centric." If its launch is indeed a vote-grab, the Office of Religious Freedom is obliged to mollify not only the Conservative Party's Evangelical Christian base, but appease a religiously diverse growing immigrant constituency that the Conservatives not-so-discretely covet whenever the writ drops. This dual impulse renders Cotler's proposal that the ORF adopt an "egalitarian approach" overseas more plausible. And although I agree with NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar that a broader consultation process would have enhanced and diversified the appeal of the new Office, if not at least improved the impaired optics of its disputed agenda, this is a relatively minor anomaly that the more comprehensive future praxis of the ORF can iron out on the global stage. Other more vacuous objections from the general public that the ORF is actually a thinly veiled Office of Religious Proselytization that's siphoning $5 million in taxpayer money to inappropriately fuse the maniacal interests of church and state domestically are based more on paranoia, or perhaps a more legitimate though unrelated abuse or betrayal of their religious upbringing, than they are on actual evidence.

The global reality is that more than 88 percent of the world's inhabitants claim one of the major religions as their spiritual home, with self-identified non-religious and atheists comprising approximately 10 percent and 2 percent respectively; Christians and Muslims combine to account for over half the global population. But these oft repeated numbers are habitually mistaken for a head-count of hopelessly credulous mythophiles by their secular detractors rather than a barometer of a pervasive quest for meaning and strength, especially during periods of violent conflict, occupation and exploitation that can occasionally turn into a dangerous cocktail of myopic religious zeal and political radicalization. As an overriding animator of the vast majority of the global population, religion can both inspire social rehabilitation and justify oppression. With this sway over a great many people, it is necessary to take religion seriously, even as some are tempted to minimize it in the quixotic illusion that this mental exercise might affect reality. And so, as much as a vocal minority may have the self-serving desire to conveniently "wish it all away," religion -- even if viewed dispassionately as a mere social phenomenon that's little more than fanciful folklore -- is an important factor to examine when weighing thorny foreign affairs decisions, priorities and conduct.

The irony, of course, is that the naysayers express a Western elitism and ignorance of the global religious landscape due to their right to the freedom from religion that has become deceptively normative to their minds and cultivates a sharp physical and emotional distance from the trying, sometimes cruel, savage and miserable conditions that kindle religious fervor as a way to both cope and hope. Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, protecting people of faith means, more often than not, protecting them from their more dominant religious rivals -- that is, protecting religions from religions, with which those who object to the creation of the ORF can ostensibly empathize. It is worth noting -- although this should be obvious -- that since it carves out a relatively small corner of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade department, this Office dovetails exclusively with Canada's foreign rather than domestic policy initiatives; the specious fear of its meddling domestic repercussions makes one wonder why these critics would not want to oppose globally what they baselessly fear domestically -- the erosion of religious, including non-religious, freedom. The purpose of the new Office is, therefore, in essence not only advocacy on behalf of faith communities around the world that face discrimination and persecution, but the mitigation of uncharitable religious interpretations and conduct -- the same insularity that those who oppose the creation of the ORF seem to project themselves. At the end of the day, we simply need to give it time and space to function before casting judgments or advancing thus far premature accusations.

Now, none of this is to say that occasional variations of the fears of Canadians who object to the foundation of the Office of Religious Freedom won't come true. It is fruitful to voice one's concerns, as Irwin Cotler has in the same breath that he lauded its inauguration; these warnings often provide a measure of accountability to those in positions of power, which should be required reading of anyone entrusted with our democratic institutions. And it is in this vein that I also have a few questions in light of the revealed mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom that concern its approach rather than alleged dishonest agenda.

First, will the new Office use a Western elitist interventionist approach to addressing religious rights abuses or use its resources, experience and networking ability to collaborate with and empower local NGOs and activists? Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. John Paul Lederach, encourages the use of what he calls a discovery-based "elicitive" model of listening to and learning from indigenous peacebuilders and the rival religious communities that have unmet needs and interests of their own. As Western arrogance, assumptions, frequently impure self-interests, and historical and ongoing systemic exploitation of strategically defined regions around the world have created suspicion, impeded authentic relationships, and eroded trust, it is important to engage and empower local NGOs, activists and politicians with resources, networking, and supportive research and analysis without imposing unrealistic and unwanted Western ideals on uniquely sensitive religious and political challenges.

Second, and related to my first question, will the ORF "pick sides" or will it instead intentionally engage in impartial third-party conciliation and arm's-length analysis? That minority religious communities are the most vulnerable and take the brunt of sectarian hostilities is not disputed. The tendency to "pick sides," however, only lodges the wedge dividing societies along religious loyalties even deeper by isolating and discouraging cooperation from the dominant and oppressive side(s) of a sectarian conflict -- whether illiberal grassroots movements and puritanical organizations or governments that codify or otherwise leave the door open for discrimination in their legislation and constitutions. When we are in desperate need of more authentic face-to-face encounters among all religious communities and militant or activist movements, especially those most prone to radicalization whose absence during mediation only guarantees failure, not all vulnerable faith communities want to entrench the obstacles to authentic peaceful coexistence by adopting such unhelpful monikers as "minorities" or adversarial tactics as "picking sides."

For example, the U.S. Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom -- the only other such office in the world, though apparently not, Stephen Harper emphatically avows, the model for Canada's parallel initiatives -- was established by the International Religious Freedom Act that the U.S. Senate ratified in 1998. And as I pointed out in a previous piece, although the American Coptic Association lobbied the U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee to punish the Egyptian government by withholding their $2 billion in aid if it did not actively protect the roughly 10 percent of Egyptians who profess Christianity, such prominent figures as Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the nephew of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the late Pope Shenouda III condemned this unilateral recklessness for, among other unique circumstances, the above reasons. It is important, therefore, to give the preponderance of space and time to navigate the societal and cultural terrain that local indigenous NGOs and activists breathe in daily and inherently understand better. But the Office of Religious Freedom must support this framework by also encouraging neutral (as much as possible) third-party grassroots mediation that legitimizes the needs and interests of all sides of sectarian conflicts and stakeholders in their resolution, which is needed for a sustainable, rather than superficial and pressurized, peace.

Finally, will the new Office pursue an overemphasis on justice and the "rule of law" that the official mandate lists as a core Canadian value or will it strike a healthy balance between peace and justice? Although the alleviation of injustice is a criterion for regaining a durable peace between estranged religious communities, it is important to ensure that popular definitions and public perceptions of justice under the unfortunate rubric of redemptive retribution be avoided -- especially when such a facile notion of justice violates the more sophisticated theological sensitivities of the religious groups that the ORF seeks to help. Instead, I hope the Office of Religious Freedom will carry out its initiatives under a more holistic and restorative understanding of justice that supports the removal of systemic injustice and cultivates the conditions for a sustainable peace through negotiation, shared action between hitherto religious rivals, nonviolent resistance, relief and development, and post-conflict community-based restorative justice measures to repair past harms instead of placing confidence in an unreliable and often mistrusted state security apparatus. It is through this implementation of a "just" peace that sectarian conflict won't be merely resolved, but transformed.

Ideological, agenda-based and budgetary scruples aside, the ambitions of the Office of Religious Freedom tap into a growing global challenge -- one that some in the general public (if the comments sections under news reports are any indication) seem intent on dismissing by caricaturing religious devotees as inherently fanatical whose weak acquiescence to a ragbag of delusional self-therapy fables is intellectually offensive. No doubt such organizations as the Humanist Association of Canada will continue to thrust the behaviour of the Office of Religious Freedom under a microscope where it belongs to keep our government accountable, but hopefully we can allow cooler, more pragmatic heads to prevail and give this new initiative, as controversial as it is in some circles, the space to breathe a little and the time needed for judgments -- both critical and affirming -- to actually earn their validity.