Baird advised to tread carefully in Vatican meeting

Officials warned Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird that a dispute in Quebec over religious teaching could be a trouble spot in a meeting at the Vatican about Canada's plan to set up an office of religious freedom.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, meets with the Apostolic Papal Nuncio to Canada, Archbishop Pedro López Quintana, to discuss protection for religious minorities and a proposed Office of Religious Freedom during a visit to the Holy See in Rome, July, 2011. (Foreign Affairs photo)

Federal bureaucrats told Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to tread carefully in a meeting last month at the Vatican about his plan to set up an office of religious freedom within his department.

A briefing note obtained under the Access to Information Act by The Canadian Press pointed to a potential trouble spot with the Vatican which is watching a case before the Supreme Court of Canada.

The case involves the parents of Drummondville, Que., students who object to the religious teaching their children receive and bureaucrats advised Baird not to mention the case. If it did come up, they suggested he dismiss it as a provincial matter.

The parents object to their children being forced to take a course in ethics and religious culture because it teaches them about other religions, not just Catholicism. The parents argued that the course caused "premature" contact with a series of beliefs that ran counter to the religious faith of their family.

The Drummondville case was clearly at cross-purposes with Baird's intention for the meeting, which was to work with the Holy See "to promote and protect freedom of religion and conscience around the world."

In a section titled, "Key Messages to Convey," Baird was advised to sidestep the topic of the Quebec program during the Oct. 10 meeting and say, "Education policy is set at the provincial level." The message was deemed "Responsive Only," which is bureaucratese instructing him not to raise the matter unless his Vatican hosts bring it up.\

"The Holy See speaks out against the marginalization of religion in countries 'that accord importance to tolerance and pluralism.' It has for example objected to Quebec's obligatory Ethics and Religious Culture course," the memo states.

"The Holy See is following the appeal to the Supreme Court by parents in Drummondville to overturn the compulsory nature of the province-imposed course."

The memo noted that the Vatican's previous ambassador to Canada and a highly-placed Canadian cardinal in Rome "have publicly criticized this course as contrary to the UN guaranteed right of parents to make decisions about the education of their children."

Turkey's policy on Christians flagged

Baird was also given advice about how to navigate through a decades-old struggle between Turkey's Muslim majority and minority Christians during a meeting with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey during a July visit. Turkey has been criticized for a policy that has threatened the survival of the church and other religious minorities.

Baird met with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul. A briefing note describes the church's struggle for recognition and property rights in Turkey and details the rules barring a foreign-born person from leading the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey or from becoming patriarch.

Bartholomew was born on a Turkish island, his biography says.

"Members of the Greek Orthodox community assert that these restrictions threaten the survival of the patriarchate, because, with a dwindling population of around 4,000 in Turkey, the community is becoming too small to maintain the institution," says the briefing note.

The memo also states that "numerous religious groups" have lost property to the Turkish government.

"Most recently, in response to a 2010 ruling of the European Court on Human Rights, the Turkish government agreed to return a former orphanage confiscated by the Turkish state to the Greek Orthodox Church."

Scope of religious freedom office

The briefing note says the new Canadian office of religious freedom is still in the planning stages but that the "process of defining the scope and structure of the Office is well underway."

It lays out three priority areas:

  • protecting, and advocating on behalf of, religious minorities under threat.
  • opposing religious hatred and intolerance.
  • promoting the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.

The U.S. State Department has a similar office that was created in the late 1990s by the Bill Clinton Democrats.

The government has said little about the office, beyond announcing it in its spring election platform and its subsequent June throne speech.

Baird also mentioned it in his September speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

He cited Christians in China, Egypt and Iraq, as well as Buddhists and Muslims in Burma as examples of persecuted religious groups.

The minister also referenced: "Gays and lesbians threatened with criminalization of their sexuality in Uganda. And other minorities subjected to persecution, oppression or violence."