Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says his department's new Office of Religious Freedom won't become a vehicle for playing domestic politics in Canada's immigrant communities.
Baird dismissed criticism that the new office could lead to an uncomfortable mix of religion and politics.
"Freedom of religion is one of the first things in the Charter, it's one of the first things in the Bill of Rights, it's front and centre in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – it's an essential human right; I don't see any concern about that at all," Baird told The Canadian Press in a year-end interview.
The Tories announced the creation of the office in their federal election platform last spring, but they have yet to roll out details of the new entity, to be housed within Foreign Affairs. The government is expected to formally announce the new office early this year.
Baird has high hopes for the Office of Religious Freedom, even though it will come with a modest $5-million price tag. That will include a relatively minuscule $500,000 budget for operations, so it won't be a major drag on already thin resources.
But some are warning the office could have a broad impact, and not the positive one the Conservative government is looking for.
Tories accused of secrecy over new office
Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, says that while religious persecution "is a serious human rights concern right around the world" he's not confident about the government's approach to the new office.
"We're watching it with interest but also with considerable concern," said Neve. "There is such complete secrecy about it." His organization has met with Foreign Affairs officials, but questions about the office generate vague responses along the lines of "work is under way" and "you'll be hearing more," said Neve.
Neve said religious freedom can have a "contentious relationship" with other crucial human-rights concerns such as women's equality, the equality rights of gays and lesbians, and freedom of expression.
"It's an area obviously where governments need to tread carefully. They need to do so in ways where they don't – either intentionally or unintentionally – convey a message that some religions are preferred over others."
Baird has been consulting internationally, including meetings with the Vatican in Rome and a day of consultations in Ottawa with religious groups in October.
The October consultations were not open to the public. Neve questions why Amnesty and other rights groups were excluded.
Baird offered few details about how the new office will actually function during a pre-Christmas interview.
Details still to come
"It's in the campaign document. What you see is what you get. There won't be any surprises," the minister said, adding he would be "speaking to it in the new year."
Pressed on what exactly the office will do, Baird replied: "It will be promoting religious freedom." He said it would involve "persuasion, lobbying, putting light ... promoting."
The Tories have noted that the concept of the office is not novel to Canada. They point to the fact the U.S. State Department has its own religious freedom office that was created in the late 1990s under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.
A May briefing note to Baird, obtained under Access to Information, lays out three priority areas for the new office: protecting, and advocating on behalf of, religious minorities under threat; opposing religious hatred and intolerance; promoting the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.
Baird has consulted internationally on the creation of the new office meeting with the Holy See in Rome, the Aga Khan, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey and the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
"They accomplished a lot," Baird said of his meeting last summer with Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
But he added "ours will be a made-in-Canada approach."
Baird cited persecution of Baha'i practitioners in Iran, Coptic Christians killed in Egypt and Roman Catholic priests who have been forced underground in China. "Sometimes tough things need to be said. It's really uncomfortable, I think, for the Egyptian government when you talk about the plight of Copts," said Baird.
"If you're one of the 54 Copts who was killed at this time last year, it's pretty uncomfortable for you and your family too, whose only sin was being Coptic."
As the Tories mull their final roll out for the new office, religious violence is sparking the usual time-honoured response of Canadian governments, whether Liberal or Conservative: a written denunciation in the minister's name condemning the perpetrators and an expression of solidarity for the victims.
That's what happened on Christmas Day after a radical sect called Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on churches that killed at least 42 people in Nigeria. Baird's statement that day said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones. These people died practising their religion – a basic human right. Canada strongly denounces such cowardly attacks without reservation."