A speech by Canada's foreign affairs minister about religious freedom is providing few new clues as to what a planned office to promote the cause will entail.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird used a speech Thursday night in Washington, D.C., to talk up the government's planned Office of Religious Freedom, which the Conservatives campaigned on last year.

Baird was asked to speak at the dinner, organizers said, because of Canada's intention to open the office.

But he offered no new information about what the office would do or how it would work, other than to say he's excited about it because "it might help our diplomats around the world support religious freedom."

Speaking to a crowd of dignitaries at the Religious Liberty Dinner at the Canadian Embassy, Baird said societies that protect religious freedom are more likely to protect other fundamental freedoms.

"They are typically more stable and they are typically more economically prosperous. When you have religious freedom, other freedoms follow. That is why religious freedom is front and centre in fundamental documents such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and both our respective countries’ bill of rights,"  Baird said.

He pointed to a number of examples he described as attacks on religion around the world: thousands killed by terror group Boko Haram in Nigerian markets, media offices and other sacred places; religious sites destroyed in northern Mali; and discrimination in Burma of Muslims and several types of Buddhists.

'Christians in particular face persecution'

"Far too often, those targeted are Christians. Christians, in particular, face persecution in countries in every part of the world," Baird said, offering Iran and Egypt as examples.

He also echoed past speeches in which he criticized previous governments for "being afraid to take a clear position."

"So I’m proud to say Canada's no longer a country that simply 'goes along to get along' in the conduct of our foreign policy," he said. "We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless [of] whether it is popular, convenient or expedient. We do so as part of our commitment to basic human rights for all."

The annual Religious Liberty Dinner attracts people of different faiths and an array of important figures, including ambassadors. Previous speakers have included then senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain.

The dinner is sponsored by groups affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a church whose hardline stance on same-sex marriage and homosexuality is at odds with Baird's support for gay rights around the world.

The church believes "that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship," and that "the Bible makes no accommodation for homosexual activity or lifestyle," it says on its website.

Baird has spoken strongly in favour of gay rights and has criticized other countries for persecuting gays and lesbians. On Wednesday, his office issued a press release praising Malawi for repealing laws that criminalized homosexuality.

Baird didn't touch explicitly on those hot-button issues in his speech, but at one point he noted: "We cannot be selective in which basic human rights we defend, nor can we be arbitrary in whose rights we protect. We don't compromise on basic rights. Nor do we consider these rights to be the privilege of a select few."

Baird also used the speech to forcefully defend his government's strong support of Israel.

"We contend that modern anti-Semitism lives in the disproportionate criticism Israel receives, and the refusal to accept its right to exist," Baird said.

"The world cannot take the words of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as mere rhetoric and risk appeasing these malicious actors in the same way the world appeased the Nazis.… Under our prime minister, and under this foreign minister, Canada will stand with the Jewish state and people as they struggle to protect their very right to exist."

With files from The Canadian Press