Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is signalling that his long-promised, much-anticipated office of religious freedom is set to be unveiled in the coming weeks.
In a news release regarding Baird's current trip to London for an international meeting on religious freedom, his staff noted the religious freedom office, which will be housed within the Department of Foreign Affairs, is now scheduled to open "in early 2013."
The $5-million office was first promised in the May 2011 election campaign, but the department has struggled to fill the role of ambassador and its opening has been put off several times as a result.
In late 2011, officials insisted the office would be opened in early 2012. But several people approached for the sensitive post of ambassador turned it down, sources told CBC News.
At the same time, some scholars criticized the government for a closed-door consultation about the office in the fall of 2011.
Four out of six panellists for the event were drawn from Christian religions, one was Jewish and one was Ba'hai. The makeup of the panel and the closed nature of the consultation led some to fear the new office would not be representative of all religions. It's a criticism that has been levelled at the government's acknowledged prototype, the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedoms, which was set up under the Clinton administration.
Others have questioned whether such an office is really necessary — or whether it will prioritize religious freedom as more important than other key human rights within Canada's foreign policy.
New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says the government has been all sizzle, no steak on the issue, and points to the ongoing problem with finding an ambassador.
"They've really painted themselves into a corner. Who are you going to choose? Are you going to choose someone who's from one particular faith? Or someone who's a humanist?... In fact, the whole issue of religious freedom deserves to be dealt with in a wider context under human rights. They've been playing politics with this from the beginning," Dewar said.
'Should intervene' wherever violations happen
Still, the office has several proponents who say as long as the government makes the right choices for staffing and advisory bodies, the office can fulfil a much-needed role in educating the world about the need for religious tolerance.
Peter Bhatti is the brother of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated while serving as Pakistan's first Christian cabinet minister, the minister of minority affairs.He's also the chairman of International Christian Voice, a Toronto-based group promoting international religious freedom
Bhatti is a strong believer that religious freedom should be a priority for Canada's foreign policy because it will help create a more peaceful world.
"We shouldn't kill people or disrespect people because of their faith," he said in an interview from Toronto, where he lives.
"So it's more important. I believe if we will focus on that one and [get the] international community's support of Canada, we will make a huge big difference to bring peace in the world."
Bhatti wants the new ambassador to be broad-minded about the various types of persecution now playing out across the globe.
"I believe the ambassador should be focused on not any particular one, it doesn't matter what religion he belongs to, but he will focus on all religions," he said. "And wherever religious freedom violations take place, he should intervene and give open and courageous remarks about that one. It doesn't matter what price [he has] to pay."
Bhatti also wants to see an advisory panel that draws from all the different communities in Canada that have experienced religious persecution abroad.