Opinion: Marking International Religious Freedom Day

Every day, Canadians are inundated with international news that speaks of unimaginable atrocities committed against people just because of their faith. This involved all MPs last week when Conservatives called for the House to recognize the genocide that the Yazidi religious minority, and particularly women and girls, are facing at the hands of ISIS. These people have been driven from their ancient home and have been subject to unspeakable persecution because they hold to a different faith. After a delay, this week the Liberal government agreed to support our motion.
The Yazidis are not alone in their suffering. Still rampant, but lesser known, is the persecution of the Bahá’í in Iran, the Falun Dafa practitioners of China, the Rohingya of Myanmar, and Christians in more than 60 countries. If our daily headlines were to report on all cases of global religious persecution, we would have little time or attention for any other matter. 76 percent of the world’s population is afflicted by some form of religious persecution, and it’s getting worse.

David Anderson, MP and David Sweet, MP meet with Nadia Murad, Yazidi genocide survivor and UN Goodwill Ambassador.

David Anderson, MP and David Sweet, MP meet with Nadia Murad, Yazidi genocide survivor and UN Goodwill Ambassador.

However, it shouldn’t be difficult for the international community to recognize the clear patterns of religious intolerance. Religious freedom is directly tied to democratic rights. As we have learned time after time, a decline in one of these rights inevitably leads to a decline in the other. Totalitarian government and despots often move to restrict religious liberty in the name of ‘national security,’ or to tighten their grip on society out of fear of free people and free thinking.

At the same time, Western countries, including Canada face the threat of religious liberty being restricted as well. There are those who view religion today as outdated and in need of drastic secularization. In reality, religious freedom is one of the oldest human rights and is central to peace and democracy. At home and abroad, Canada needs to defend freedom of religion through this very lens.

Fortunately, many independent voices on the international stage are stepping up to the plate. The work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) is a refreshing change to the talk and partisanship that often dominates the political process. In Berlin, Germany in September, close to 100 international parliamentarians met to begin enacting real, on-the-ground solutions to religious persecution in their home countries. Many having faced persecution themselves, these lawmakers promote and protect freedom of belief. The goal is to repair the damage that religious persecution does to the societal fabric and a country’s international reputation. Meetings like the one in Berlin provide real hope that countries around the world are taking ownership of their past and are determined to chart a brighter future.

Even as a Canadian, Berlin gave me chance for reflection. I heard directly from these parliamentarians about how disappointed they are to see Canada’s scaled-back approach to the promotion of freedom of belief. In recent years, the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) under the leadership of Dr. Andrew Bennett, coupled with his chairmanship of the International Contact Group on Religious Freedom, was an international success. The ORF’s impact was felt on the ground by those in need, and the world took notice. Instead of building on its good work, the Liberals have abandoned the ORF for a diluted and unfocused approach to human rights. They are not taking their chairmanship of the Contact Group seriously and it is on the verge of becoming irrelevant. Canadians have to wonder why we are stepping back while the rest of the world is stepping up.

On International Religious Freedom Day, we are reminded that we need Canada to refocus on the fundamental right of freedom of religion or belief. Our reputation is at stake and three quarters of the world’s population depend on our leadership.