Religious freedom forum provokes strong reactions

By Geoffrey Johnston, Kingston Whig-Standard

Last week in Ottawa, Conservative MP David Anderson hosted the second-annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom and Governance. The event, at the Government Conference Centre, was attended by approximately 180 parliamentarians as well as faith and community leaders.

A year and a half ago, Anderson took up the cause of human rights when he discovered that “there didn’t seem to be any parliamentarians focusing on religious freedom and persecution around the world,” said the MP for Cypress Hills-Grasslands in Saskatchewan in an interview.

The goal of the forum, said Anderson just minutes before the event got underway, was to examine how different styles of governance affect religious freedom.

The persecution of religious minorities is widespread throughout the world, he said in his opening remarks. And as the evening wore on, several countries were singled out as particularly bad offenders, including China, Afghanistan and Egypt. However, it was Pakistan that received the most attention, and for good reason.

“The situation in Pakistan remains exceedingly poor for religious freedom,” states the 2012 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission alleges that decades of discriminatory laws have “fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Sikhs.”

Last month, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird posthumously awarded the 2012 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award to the late Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s former federal minister for minorities. The honour, which was accepted by Peter Bhatti on behalf of his brother, was in recognition of the slain human rights defender’s “determined efforts in the struggle for equality, justice and freedom.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy law tends to encourage extremism and extra-judicial violence. And Pakistani authorities don’t protect minority communities from societal violence. The perpetrators of religiously motivated violence often commit crimes with impunity, including the killers of Shahbaz Bhatti. “So far, we are not satisfied with what they are doing up to now,” Peter Bhatti says of the authorities’ investigation into his brother’s murder.

Shahbaz Bhatti , who visited Ottawa in early 2011 and met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of his cabinet, campaigned for human rights and religious freedom for all Pakistanis, advocating the abolition of the country’s blasphemy laws. He was gunned down in March of last year by Islamist extremists. In the wake of Bhatti’s murder, a shaken Harper government made the promotion of international religious freedom a pillar of Canadian foreign policy.

Before he was assassinated, Bhatti won small victories for human rights. For example, less than a year before his death, he created the National Interfaith Council as well as establishing District Interfaith Harmony Committees to promote tolerance among Pakistan’s different faith groups.

“After the assassination of my brother, the situation has gotten worse,” Peter Bhatti, chairman of the human rights group International Christian Voice, said in interview before he delivered a powerful speech to the parliamentary forum. “There is no voice left who can speak for the oppressed or downtrodden minorities or the people who suffer. Everybody is scared.”

In last year’s Throne Speech, the Harper government signalled its intention to establish the Office of Religious Freedom. Later in 2011, Baird conducted a series of consultations with faith communities, individuals and human rights experts to build support for the initiative. Addressing a gathering of stakeholders last October, Baird explained that the purpose of the office would be “to promote and protect freedom of religion and belief.”

Peter Bhatti, who attended the October consultations, said that Canadian parliamentarians seem to be sincerely committed to “trying to do something” about international religious freedom issues. “But so far,” he noted, “it is not anything visible.” He’s got a point. Canadians are still waiting for the Harper government to launch the much-anticipated religious freedom office. Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, told the forum that the office would soon be operational and would have an annual budget of $5 million.

Given the reactions of some of those in attendance, the forum fell short of the goal set by Anderson. A number of the speakers failed to address the core issue of religious persecution, which some in the audience found frustrating. For example, a woman left the event after the second presentation, explaining afterward that she “got the sense that we were simply headed towards an affirmation of a secular society – in a very political manner.”

However, the event got lively during the question-and-answer session that followed. Audience members queued up at the microphone to ask questions of the panel. Many were Christians from Pakistan and used the opportunity to recount their personal experiences with or observations about persecution in the South Asian country. Moderator Brian Lilley of Sun News Network had to cut off more than one person due to time constraints.

Judging from the passionate response of the audience, there appears to be a pent-up desire among many new Canadians to address religious freedom issues. So, it wasn’t surprising that Dechert, the man tasked with putting together the new religious freedom office, got a particularly warm reception. “Canada is a place where religious freedom is part of our fundamental core values,” he said. “If we’re not willing to stand up and say ‘this is a Canadian value,’ then we’re denying our heritage.”

Peter Bhatti sees a bleak future for the Christian minority in Pakistan, because extremists continue to terrorize the country. “If they cannot be defeated, the situation cannot get better.”

He said that Canadians can do their part for religious freedom by pressing the federal government to maintain a human rights dialogue with Pakistan. Human rights defenders in Pakistan, he said, need that support.

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @GeoffyPJohnston