David Anderson is no ordinary member of Parliament. While most parliamentarians tend to focus on local politics, rarely looking beyond the borders of their own ridings, Anderson has spent the better part of a decade fighting to uphold the universal right to freedom of religion and speaking out in defence of persecuted religious minorities around the world.
Last week, Anderson announced he will not be seeking re-election in the upcoming federal election. First elected as member of Parliament for the Saskatchewan riding of Cypress Hills-Grasslands in 2000 and re-elected five times, Anderson is stepping away from politics. But he pledges to continue his work on behalf of the persecuted, promoting the right to freedom of religion, belief and conscience around the world.
The Conservative MP is currently serving as official Opposition critic for human rights and religious freedom.
How did Anderson come to be interested in international religious freedom issues at a time when both the federal government and media seemed uninterested?
Anderson replied that back in 2010, he was looking for a human rights issue to champion. And the MP soon learned that “nobody” was “doing anything on religious freedom here in Canada, or outside of Canada,” he added.
“I thought there’s got to be some space here to work on this issue, which is such an important issue for so many people around the world in terms of their choices and the way they live their lives,” he said in a telephone interview.
Back in 2011, meeting Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minority affairs minister, was a seminal event for Anderson. Bhatti, a Christian, risked assassination back home for defending religious freedom rights in the Muslim-majority country. “I just realized if he is willing to show that kind of courage and sacrifice, then perhaps there’s something I can do right here, understanding that it’s a whole lot safer than the environment he was working in.”
Anderson got the chance “to visit with” Bhatti at an Ottawa reception for the Pakistani politician hosted by Jason Kenney, then the federal citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism minister. Anderson described Bhatti as “very unassuming, not physically imposing” and “standing off to the side a bit.”
Anderson revealed that Bhatti “was offered an opportunity to stay in Canada, and his response was, ‘If I don’t go back to Pakistan, the only minority member of the Pakistani cabinet, who is going to speak for the millions of Christians in Pakistan?’”
Kenney confirmed Anderson’s story. “There is technically no such thing as ‘offering asylum’” in Canada, the former immigration minister explained in a direct message via Twitter. “But I certainly did encourage Shahbaz to stay in Canada during his visit two weeks before his assassination,” said Kenney, who is now the leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta.
“He told me that he knew he was going to be killed,” he continued. “I pleaded with him to stay, at least until things cooled down. Had he decided to stay permanently, I would have granted him permanent residence on humanitarianism and compassionate grounds, which is basically analogous to ‘granting asylum.’”
“He went back, knowing that he was at risk of death,” Anderson said. “And also he went back knowing that he wasn’t going to get the same security protection other cabinet ministers did.”
Two weeks later, Bhatti was assassinated. In the wake of the assassination, Anderson decided to help “carry on” the work of the martyred politician, advocating for the persecuted.
Freedom of religion, belief, conscience
Why should Canadians care about issues of international religious freedom?
“I actually don’t think it’s just a case of just religious freedom. I think it’s actually a case of freedom of belief,” Anderson replied. “My point is that every single person has a set of beliefs based on faith of some sort; we all believe in something,” he declared.
“So when we talk about international religious freedom, it’s the freedom to believe in the way that you choose without coercion. But it’s also the freedom to choose not to believe or whole different beliefs as well. And we should be able to find a place to allow people to hold those different positions.”
Is Canada strong enough in its defence of international religious freedom and belief and conscience?
Anderson answered by praising the former Harper government’s decision to establish the office of religious freedom.
Not surprisingly, Anderson thinks it was “unfortunate” that the Trudeau government scrapped the office of religious freedom. “It’s been difficult to get them to see these issues of religious freedom as important,” Anderson said of the Liberal government.
Anderson said he will remain committed to working on issues related to international religious freedom even after he leaves politics. For example, he said he will continue to play a role in the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB), which he helped establish in 2014.
Anderson explained that the work of the panel is focused around Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 declares: “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.”
The panel encourages people to bring Article 18 before their governments and “strengthen their governments’ commitment to it,” Anderson said.
What does Anderson think he has accomplished in terms of promoting international religious freedom, belief, and conscience
He cited the work he did with MP Bev Shipley to bring forward Motion 382 on religious freedom. In April 2013, the House of Commons unanimously passed the motion, which declared the Parliament of Canada’s support for religious freedom around the globe.
In addition, the religious freedom events hosted by Anderson have become increasingly well attended over the years. In fact, he has hosted seven Parliamentary Forums on Religious Freedom. And he said that “we’ll try to pass that on to someone else.”
Circling back to his work on the international panel, Anderson said that helping the network around the world is important to accomplishment. According to the organization’s website, the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief is “a network of parliamentarians and legislators from around the world committed to combating religious persecution and advancing freedom of religion or belief.”
Anderson was one of a small group of parliamentarians from several countries who convened at Oxford, United Kingdom, in June 2014 to discuss religious freedom violations around the world. It was there that they agreed to build a broader coalition to advance international religious freedom.
“We’ve been to countries such as Myanmar and Nepal to try and encourage the governments to do a better job on religious freedom,” Anderson said of the panel’s activities.
“We’ve written advocacy letters to numerous countries to try and get human rights advocates, pastors and monks released from being held by their governments. So we do our work. We are asked to do what we can. And I think we’ve done that. I hope it’s had an impact. And I look forward to continuing the work. I don’t think we’re done yet.”
Going forward, Anderson warned that religious persecution in China will continue to be a major concern.
“They have targeted minority religious groups now in a way that most other countries never have: the Uighur Muslim situation, bringing in a whole surveillance system there that they are trying to export to other countries as well,” he said. “We need to speak up and need to be there to try to protect some of these minority groups.”
What does the future hold for David Anderson?
He replied that he wants to spend more time with his wife, Sheila, and his grandchildren. However, he remains committed to advancing the cause of international religious freedom.
“If there is somebody that calls and says, ‘We’d like your help on this,’ wherever it comes from, I think I’d have an interest in that. If there is someplace where we can step in here and make a difference for some people who can’t make that difference for themselves. There’s nothing more basic than the freedom to believe.”
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.