Canadian Muslim organizations not consulted on new Office of Religious Freedom

The Toronto Star – January 20, 2012

The Canadian Conservative government has launched a new office meant to promote religious freedom worldwide through a foreign policy focus to aid oppressed religious minorities in places such as Egypt, Pakistan, China and Iran. But in the months since the federal election, when the Office of Religious Freedom first appeared on the Tories’ platform, the foreign affairs department has released few details about how the new body will operate or when, exactly, it will come into being.

The new entity — which will cost $5 million, employ five and, Lavoie said, launch in early 2012 — has rankled a number of Canadian religious organizations, human rights groups and academics, who remain unsure of what it hopes to achieve and whose interests it will serve. Muslim groups especially have lamented the lack of information. Wahida Valiante, past president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said it was self-defeating for the ministry to stand behind a “wall of secrecy,” since religious issues are often racked with controversy. “We know very little,” echoed Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There is concern over how this is going to operate and what its methodology is going to be.”

A closed-door consultation between the minister and roughly 100 religious leaders and politicians, held in Ottawa on Oct. 3, drew criticism over the ministry’s invited speakers list: representatives from major Christian and Jewish organizations participated, while members of Eastern religions, like Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, were left out.

Also present at the October consultation was Thomas Farr, first director of the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom, a component of the U.S. State Department since 1998. Farr’s involvement signaled to some that the Canadian office would be heavily modeled on its American counterpart. That body was originally pushed by the evangelical Christian lobby, said University of Toronto law professor Karen Knop.