Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is hosting special closed-door consultations this week about the creation of an "office of  religious freedom" at his department as questions swirl over its purpose and value.

Prepared remarks posted on the Foreign Affairs website suggest Baird pledged that "whatever the circumstances, Canada will continue to speak out, and take principled positions." 

"We will not just go along to get along," Baird continued in the posted speech text. "We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient."

During the election, Conservatives cited the example of Coptic Christians in Egypt as a religious minority in need of better protection, and proposed creating a special office at Foreign Affairs to promote the cause of religious minority rights.

Campaign literature suggested the office could monitor religious freedom around the world, promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy, and advance policies and programs that support religious freedom. The campaign pledge also noted that "respect for religious pluralism is inextricably linked to democratic development" and promised to respond when religious communities "suffer merely because of their faith."

But since the election, little has been said about the office, its mandate or its composition at Foreign Affairs. Photos publicized on the foreign affairs website suggest the minister has been engaging prominent individuals in its development, but little concrete information was released despite inquiries from CBC News.

Last week during his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations, Baird made a rare public mention of the office in explaining how religious freedom is a key aspect of Canada's foreign policy.

"Our nationalities are many, but we share one humanity," Baird told the UN. The foreign affairs minister also cited Franklin Roosevelt, saying "where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force."

Speaking at the consultations Monday, Baird again cited Roosevelt. He also quoted former prime minister John Diefenbaker, after whom a government office building housing foreign affairs staff was recently named, citing Diefenbaker's reference to Canada's "heritage of freedom" when introducing Canada's first bill of rights, a precursor to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

U.S. office offers model

The CBC's Louise Elliott reports that government insiders say the new office will be modelled to some degree after the United States office and commission of international religious freedom.

Both bodies are housed in the State Department, and flowed from a contentious bill passed in the late 1990s called the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, which gave the government the option of imposing economic sanctions on nations that support religious persecution.

But then secretary of state Madeline Albright opposed the act, saying it created a "hierarchy of human rights." State Department officials also expressed considerable skepticism that the office was nothing more than a sop to the Christian right and was designed to promote Christianity worldwide.

This summer, Baird met with Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom.

But Government House leader Peter Van Loan told CBC Radio's The House that the Canadian government intends to take the "opposite approach" to the office, noting that while the American tradition is for a separation of church and state, the Canadian Constitution actually entrenches religion in areas like education.

Janet Epp Buckingham of Trinity Western University says that when the Conservatives announced their plans for the office of religious freedom during last spring's election campaign, the United States issued an unusual warning.

"Interestingly, the U.S. commission on international religious freedom itself made some statements after the announcement [saying] 'don't make the mistakes that we did. This office should be multi-faith, multi-religious, representing many communities out there experiencing religious persecution.' That is a self-criticism they would make," Epp Buckingham says.

Susanne Tamas, the director of government relations for the Baha'í Community of Canada, is among those invited to participate in this week's consultations. Baha'is have faced torture and execution in countries like Iran since the religion was founded in the mid-1800s.

"Every comment I've heard so far is that it has to be not focused on one or two faiths but has to be focused on broader issues for all people," Tamas says. "The freedom to believe or not to believe is also a protected right."

Concept a potential 'minefield'

Before teaching at the Christian university, Epp Buckingham spent years with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, raising awareness of religious persecution. She recognizes just how contentious the concept of religious freedom can be, particularly in the Muslim world.

"For Islam, it is not possible to convert. This is obviously a huge issue because for those of us in the West the idea of people being executed for converting to religion is just completely unacceptable," says Epp Buckingham, adding that countries like Germany have signalled they will pursue religious freedom by focusing on the issue of conversion in Muslim countries. She thinks that would be a mistake for Canada.

But at the same time she argues the Canadian office of religious freedoms will have to take a tough stand, particularly in countries like Afghanistan and Libya, where Canada has a vested interest in the promotion of democracy after its military involvement.

"We would not find it acceptable that our Canadian Forces have lost their lives ... to promote freedom and democracy in these countries and then to accept some form of government that is going to undermine and turn their backs on that kind of  freedom for some people in the country," she says.

Epp Buckingham thinks the best role for the office would be to track cases of religious persecution and act as a resource to government policymakers across departments like Foreign Affairs and Immigration.

Other scholars are more blunt in their assessment that with its announcement the Canadian government is essentially entering an international policy minefield.

Arvind Sharma, who teaches religious studies at McGill University, has just completed a book called Problematizing Religious Freedom.

Sharma argues that the very concept of religious freedom has become an excuse used by proselytizing religions, particularly Christianity, to convert people. He says that was the clear goal of the U.S. model from the start.

"My concern is that this office will be used ... by missionary religions, especially by Christian missions, will be interpreted by them as giving them the right to proselytize," Sharma says. "I agree that the right to change one's religion is a part of religious freedom but I don't agree that my right to change my religion is symmetrical with somebody else's right to ask me to change my religion."

Sharma cites several examples where aid groups have tied their assistance to religious conversion, for example in Indonesia during the tsunami, or in Iraq during the Gulf War.

And he argues the Western promotion of religious freedom has actually led to a backlash in several countries.

In India, he notes, four states have passed laws saying that in order to convert a person must first indicate they have not been coerced.

"The stakes are very high, because if this notion gains ground that freedom of religion is a cover ... used by missionary religions to proselytize ... this could lead to the impediment of religious freedom in those parts of the world if people get sufficiently riled up and give it political expression to their dissatisfaction," Sharma fears.

Opposition politicians share Sharma's skepticism about the value of the office.

Former NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who is now running for the party's leadership, says it doesn't help when Conservative politicians are secretive about the process.

"I haven't seen the government argue in great detail as to why we need this office," Dewar says.  "We want to make sure we're not playing politics with an issue around religion."

With files from Louise Elliott