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Monitoring religious freedom is tricky work

Ten years after the horrors of 9/11, Canada and the world are still at a loss to offer a consistent, intelligent definition of religion, either at home or abroad. Religion, pundits say, is like pornography: We know it when we see it. Do we?

Short weeks ago, thousands lined the streets of Toronto, chalking sidewalks with last words of hope and love - acts and words that certainly seemed religious. Was it just secular national sentiment, or was there something intangible, something esthetic, something religious, in the response to Jack Layton's passing? We don't know because we no longer know what religion is.

With Parliament resumed, that question is going to get tested. Religion and its freedom is being upgraded from a fringe concern to its own corner office at Foreign Affairs, and while most think it's a good idea, no one is quite sure why. Freedom, like equality and fairness, is one

of those virtues nestled deep into the Canadian psyche. But the qualifier is everything: religious freedom is not for the faint of heart.

None of which is to say the $5-million office is a bad idea. It is high time Canadians caught up with this perplexing global resurgence of religion and the uncomfortable realization that the globe is not populated by ironic, urban secularists.

The Office of Religious Freedom was a convenient dual stroke: an electiontime carrot for the Conservative base and a prudent first step to studying religion and its many meanings for policy making. Politics and good policy do occasionally align.

But at least two questions loom over the implementation of an office of religion freedom: who will control it, and, well, what is religion?

The first is a mirror to concerns over its sister Americabased Office of Religious Freedom, where critics alleged "religious freedom" had Christian evangelical undertones, or, at the more extreme end, was a mirage for conditioning societies for proselytizing. Canada's obsessive politics of multiculturalism, especially in Foreign Affairs, will almost certainly make this a non issue, but it will be important for the new office to express its independence quickly. It may be evangelicals in the Conservative support base who pushed for the office, but its mandate should define religious freedom very broadly.

Ironically, evangelical activists in Canada probably won't oppose that. Contra Armageddon advocates, evangelicals generally support freedom of conscience and religion for all religions. Pluralism still lives at large in that community.

Still, that distancing may mean justified criticisms of allies as well as easier, politically expedient criticisms of others. And it will mean, challengingly, that the definition of religious freedom the office uses will come under constant fire.

Religious freedom for Christian dissidents in China is easy, but what will the office say about Christian anti-homosexual legislation in front of the Ugandan parliament? Religion can go very wrong and this office will need the moral fibre to stand and name its abuses, as well as its assailants.

Secondly, this means that the Office of Religious Freedom should spare a desk for Canada. As cathartic as it may be to pronounce on the effects of religion abroad, that work will inevitably feed back into our unsettled consensus on the role of religion at home. The irony should not be lost on observers watching this office that Canada has come under censure from the UN and other international bodies for its own practices of freedom and rights, especially as they revolve around religion.

The privileged public funding of Catholic schools in Ontario is one example. The secularist bullies at the Canadian Association of University Teachers and their disingenuous investigations of religious universities is another. Or Quebec's proposed Bill 94, which limits access for those wearing niqabs?

The reason this office will be up to its neck in controversy as it monitors abroad is because we have no settled consensus on what religious freedom is at home. It has become a sort of western tradition to outsource our more interesting social experiments, but foreign offices pitching freedom policies good enough for abroad but not at home will pockmark the Canadian political landscape with explosive hypocrisies.


Religious Freedom