Advice for the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

The creation of a Canadian Office of Religious Freedom is good news for a complex array of reasons, but the most important reason is simple: religious liberty is under attack in many places around the world, and it needs all the friends it can get.

The views expressed here are Dennis Hoover's alone and don't necessarily reflect the views of the Institute for Global Engagement.

The creation of a Canadian Office of Religious Freedom is good news for a complex array of reasons, but the most important reason is simple: religious liberty is under attack in many places around the world, and it needs all the friends it can get. Violations of religious freedom—everything from discriminatory laws and regulations to acts of violence based substantially on religious identity—are an acute and growing problem across the globe. Rigorous empirical studies conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that, as of 2009, about 70 per cent of the world's population lives in countries where governments impose high restrictions on religion and/or where there is a high level of religious hostilities. What's more, 32 per cent of the world's population lives in countries that experienced an increase in religious restrictions or hostilities in the 2006-2009 period.

The creation of this new Canadian office also comes at a kind of liminal moment in the history of the international affairs community's engagement of religious issues generally. Professionals in international affairs (scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers alike) were long in the firm grip of a secularist paradigm that encouraged a willed ignorance of religion, but in recent years the grip has loosened. Both in the academic and in governmental and intergovernmental circles, there has been a surge in new publications, research projects, conferences, dialogues, and policy analyses related to religion. Most often the driving force behind this trend has been the post-9/11 concern about linkages between religion and terrorism, but fortunately the discourse is now beginning to expand to include broader consideration of the roles (positive as well as negative) of religion in all spheres of public life. This broader discussion often encompasses issues such as peacemaking and reconciliation, sustainable security, constitutionalism, rule of law, citizenship, and more. In the religion-and-security arena, for instance, the military chaplaincies, especially in the U.S. and Canada, have been actively exploring the benefits and risks of "religious leader engagement" in conflict zones.

However, even though "religion" is finally emerging as a hot topic in international relations, the specific place of religious freedom in this trend remains ambiguous and contested. Properly understood, religious freedom (and the social, political, and legal environment that sustains it) is not just helpful but essential in preventing religious violence and enabling stability, social capital, and liberal democracy. Regrettably, to date this kind of holistic understanding has made only very limited inroads in the international affairs intelligentsia. For many foreign affairs elites around the world, "religious freedom" still evokes suspicions and stereotypes of a special-interest hobbyhorse of evangelical Protestants—especially American evangelicals who align politically with the religious right and enthusiastically embrace American exceptionalism.

It is thus both a blessing and a curse that the U.S. government has had such a high profile on international religious freedom since 1998. In that year, a Republican-majority Congress passed, and a Democratic President somewhat reluctantly signed, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Among numerous other things, IRFA created an Office of Religious Freedom within the State Department, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. On balance, it is certainly better that the world's only superpower has devoted some attention and resources to this issue; for many vulnerable religious minorities around the world, religious freedom is literally a matter of life or death. Yet American leadership on hyper-sensitive issues at the intersection of religion and politics has of course provoked some backlash. The critiques, which are sometime made in good faith and other times made out of cynical manipulation of anti-Americanism, often allege that U.S. international religious freedom policy is (a) just another expression of the cultural imperialism of American exceptionalism, and (b) a product of the out-sized political power of right-wing evangelicals, whose interest in religious freedom is assumed to be limited to the rights of evangelical missionaries and the churches they have planted abroad.

This background creates challenges for the new Canadian office of international religious freedom. Critics will say that it merely apes exceptionalism and panders to Canada's own evangelical community. For these reasons and others discussed below, I believe that the Canadian office will need to find ways to be simultaneously more Canadian and less Canadian—that is, it will need to explain its rationales and motivations in ways that are rooted in Canada's own distinctive history and identity, while at the same time it will need to operationalize its effort not just as a niche concern within one government department but rather something that is strategically and comprehensively synergistic with other governmental and inter-governmental bodies, international law, and global civil society. Moreover, I argue that although these necessities may appear to be a daunting burden, in reality they collectively reveal key virtues of Canada's potential role in catalyzing momentum and meaningful improvement in international religious freedom.

Towards a Peaceable Kingdom Style in Religious Freedom Diplomacy

Canadian international religious freedom policy should define itself in part by what it is not: namely, neither a spinoff from American exceptionalism nor an import from the American religious right. Ironically, U.S. international religious freedom policy doesn't derive primarily from exceptionalism or the religious right either. In reality, the coalition backing the American policy has always been politically and religiously diverse, and many of the evangelical leaders in the coalition are politically moderate new-internationalists. Still, a minority faction of the coalition does indeed consist of staunchly conservative evangelicals, who are typically enamoured of American exceptionalism. Critics have used this association to paint a stereotypical picture, in which the movement to promote international religious freedom reflects:

  1. an arrogant crusade by America and other Christian-majority countries to impose their values and get countries to accept foreign Christian missionaries;
  2. special pleading for persecuted Christians in Communist and Muslim-majority countries, with little or no concern for other religious minorities in those same countries;
  3. a simplistic geopolitical worldview with only two categories—on one side, America at the helm of "Judeo-Christian" civilization, and on the other, monolithic nemeses (Communism and Islam);
  4. unsophisticated methodologies that preference moralistic public denunciations and sanctions;
  5. a tendency to ignore the many cases down through American history in which religious freedom was not in fact respected;
  6. a tendency to define religion in individualistic terms familiar to Protestantism, to the neglect of the communal dimensions of religion that are often dominant in non-Western contexts;
  7. an emphasis on demanding rights but neglecting to mention the duties that religious individuals and groups have to exercise rights responsibly.

These are, of course, unfair stereotypes. Nonetheless, the perception is widespread, and it undermines U.S. diplomacy on behalf of religious freedom concerns. Canadian diplomacy does not begin with this baggage in tow. Unlike U.S. political culture, which has exuded a self-confidence born in part of a politicized version of millenialism, Canada's political culture has long been notably lacking in millennial pretensions. Canada is often said to lack any "civil religion" or sense of Providential calling as a nation. A vague or non-existent pan-Canadian civil religion may arguably be a weakness vis-à-vis Canadian national identity and national unity, but it can also have advantages in terms of Canada's global reputation and diplomatic posture. In the specific context of international religious freedom diplomacy, Canadian officials are much less likely than American officials to be seen as nationalistically arrogant and off-putting.

Moreover, there are specific aspects of Canada's religious and political experience that may in fact resonate better in many contexts than does the American experience. The latter is a story of a nation that (a) was dominated historically by Protestantism/denominationalism (with attendant assumptions of individualism, religious competition, and voluntarism), (b) later managed to instill a "melting pot" ethos of assimilation regarding non-Protestants, and (c) maintained a very high degree of legal and institutional separation of church and state. Most liberal democracies around the world do not share these characteristics, much less the various illiberal regimes where severe religious freedom problems abound. By comparison to the U.S., many countries have (or perceive themselves as having) more serious problems with ethno-religious minorities, and their cultural and political traditions understand religion in a more communal sense and allow for numerous interconnections between religion and state. Foreign interlocutors may be more willing to consider lessons learned from the Canadian experience, as Canada:

  1. has had a large, geographically concentrated, sometimes-separatist-inclined religious minority (French-speaking Catholics) to deal with from the very beginning;
  2. has historically had a much more establishmentarian ethos regarding the social roles of religion;
  3. has a legal system that allows religious organizations to have direct relationships (including funding) with the state, on a pluralistic basis;
  4. has cultivated a national political culture that values individual liberty (including religious liberty) but also includes communitarian values.

Finally, in addition to Canadianizing this new effort culturally, it will also be important to Canadianize it institutionally. By this I mean that the effort to promote international religious freedom should not be confined just to one specialist office within the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. If the experience of the counterpart office in the U.S. State Department is any indication, there is an acute risk that the Canadian office will be bureaucratically and functionally isolated, excluded almost entirely from the mainstream of the foreign policy process. This would represent a huge missed opportunity. As all the relevant social science data has amply demonstrated, religious freedom is not just a narrow and controversial subset of the hopelessly idealistic human rights agenda, but rather it is an essential enabling condition for achieving sustainable security, democratization, and a flourishing civil society and economy.

Accordingly, analysis and promotion of religious freedom should be mainstreamed throughout all Canada's foreign policy, security, and development institutions. Likewise, the curricula of the universities and continuing education programs that shape Canada's foreign affairs elite should incorporate in-depth comparative religion and religious freedom and relevant legal and constitutional studies. The topic should be "owned" by the whole foreign affairs establishment of Canada. Anything short of a holistic approach will not only ensure that the new office is practically irrelevant but also that it is politically vulnerable to the accusation that it is merely a crude copy of an alien American idea, foisted on Canada by a Conservative government looking for relatively low-cost ways to please religious conservatives.

Canada with the World

At the same time that Canada finds ways to authentically and strategically indigenize its approach to international religious freedom policy, I believe it should also be proactive in finding ways to globalize it. As well positioned and well meaning as Canadian government officials serving abroad may be, ultimately they still only represent one country and are limited by imperatives of realpolitik. The effort to synergize Canada's religious freedom diplomacy with the international community should proceed by (1) mobilizing international law and multilateral institutions and coalitions, and (2) collaborating with civil society organizations or NGOs that operate internationally and have expertise and relationships relevant to religious freedom.

International Law and Multilateralism

Efforts to promote religious freedom should get as much normative traction as possible from the religious freedom protections that are already part of international law. The place to start is Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is remarkably clear and comprehensive in articulating the freedom of religion or belief. This Article is also the source text of religious freedom protections in subsequent international human rights instruments, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which has been ratified by 156 countries and which, unlike the Universal Declaration, is a treaty and thus formally binding. Furthermore, the ICCPR stipulates that religious freedom is "non-derogable," which means that it cannot be impinged even during war-time. Religious freedom is also included in numerous other international instruments, including the UN Declaration on Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (which established the European Court of Human Rights), the American Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human Rights, and documents of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) such as the Helsinki Final Act and the Vienna Concluding Document.

There are numerous opportunities to inject international religious freedom promotion into multilateral contexts. Specifically, Canadian foreign policy should:

  1. Work with and seek ways to strengthen existing religious freedom capacities within the UN (such as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief) and existing monitoring bodies and complaint recourse mechanism with multilateral bodies such as the European Union, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Organization of American States, and the African Union.
  2. Integrate religious freedom-promotion strategies into multilateral peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and development projects.
  3. Integrate religious freedom-promotion strategies into appropriate dimensions of multilateral military operations (especially opportunities that may arise via military chaplaincies' religious leader engagement).
  4. Invest in and encourage multilateral religious freedom monitoring as part of overall international human rights monitoring;
  5. Internationalize religious freedom rhetoric—that is, make opportunities for Canada's senior officials to speak jointly with other world leaders about responsible religious freedom as something that is both a universal human right and something that is demonstrably in every society's long-term self-interest.

Civil Society and NGOs

As Jack Miles noted in the Spring 2004 issue of the journal Survival:

Freedom of religion is not the default position of culture any more than flight is the default position of an airplane. Freedom of religion, on the contrary, is a craft kept aloft in a culture only by constant and highly self-conscious maintenance. Government cannot do all the necessary work, but it can do some of it.

The part that governmental entities cannot do, at least not entirely on their own, can often be done quite effectively by NGOs. Indeed, NGOs have a number of advantages in the promotion of international religious freedom. They typically enjoy a great deal of autonomy in the strategies and methodologies they employ. Because they do not answer to any governmental bureaucracy, they can be nimble and adaptive to changing circumstances. In situations that call for bold truth-telling, NGOs can sometimes speak more freely than government actors, who may be required to avoid frank criticism of regimes where vital national interests are at stake. And in situations that call for quiet diplomacy, NGOs can be even quieter than governments; they do not have to make reports to an official chain of command. Furthermore, NGOs can often afford to be more realistic about the pace of change in a foreign context, and can keep key staff "at the table" over time for long-term relationship-building.

Many NGOs that focus substantially or entirely on religious freedom are themselves faith-based. This can sometimes lead to suspicion that they are biased in favor of the interests of their own faith community. Yet there are also benefits in the faith connection. Often NGOs from different faiths do fully understand that religious freedom is ultimately beneficial to all religious groups, and hence they will collaborate ecumenically. (Religious freedom is a "big tent" issue that can bring together religious groups that otherwise have very profound theological and political disagreements.) Moreover, NGOs that share faith perspectives with victims of religious persecution can often more easily gain victims' trust and obtain detailed accounts of local conditions.  In addition, faith-based NGOs have natural connections to international networks of co-religionists, which facilitates rapid information-sharing and collaborations. Faith-based NGOs can also act effectively as mediators in conflicts between religious groups or between a religious group and the government.

Canadian international religious freedom policy should therefore seek ways to identify capable and strategically well-positioned NGOs, and find ways to collaborate with and support them (even if that simply means establishing good communication and mutual awareness such that no one is inadvertently working at cross-purposes). As Chris Seiple and others have noted, the complicated multi-sector challenge of religious freedom promotion—especially in our contemporary era of rapidly accelerating globalization—requires sophisticated and dynamic collaboration among multiple governmental and nongovernmental actors. It requires not only Track 1 (state-to-state) diplomacy and Track 2 (unofficial people-to-people) diplomacy, but also innovations in between—"Track 1.5" diplomacy.


The need for skilled promotion of international religious freedom has never been greater, and the issue has never been more relevant. Canada has an opportunity to leverage its comparative advantages and add great value to religious freedom diplomacy. Canada has long been a leader in international human rights (let us not forget that it was the Canadian John Peters Humphrey who wrote the original draft of Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and on issues like peacekeeping, nonproliferation, and landmines. To date, however, international religious freedom has not been a prominent feature of Middle Power Diplomacy. Canada can and should now take the lead in filling this gap, and its new Foreign Affairs office of international religious freedom is a step in the right direction.