Religious freedom office nearly ready for debut

The federal government's long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom will be unveiled soon, after months of delays caused by difficulty in finding the right person to head the office.

Critics applaud consultations but are wary of initiative's potential pitfalls

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, meets with Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, in Washington last year to discuss Canada's plan to introduce an Office of Religious Freedom. The long-delayed office will launch soon, department officials say. (Foreign Affairs handout)

The federal government's long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom will be unveiled soon, officials say, after months of delays caused by difficulty in finding the right person to head the office.

The new body, which will be housed within the Department of Foreign Affairs, was expected to be up and running earlier this year.

But a senior government official told CBC News that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has had a hard time finding someone to fill the role of ambassador to head up the office. Two people who were approached ultimately turned the post down for logistical and personal reasons.

Now, a third person is believed to have been chosen, but an announcement may still be weeks away.

The office has already been created and is at least partially staffed. Once appointed, the new ambassador is expected to consult widely and select a board of special advisors.

Some supporters of the idea have grown frustrated with the long wait. The $5-million office was first announced during the May 2011 election campaign as a centrepiece of the government's foreign policy.

Others say they would rather see the project delayed than done poorly.

Peter Bhatti is the chairman of International Christian Voice, a Toronto-based group promoting worldwide religious freedom.

"I am not in a rush," he said in an interview. "I think as long as they are doing the job properly and find the right person.... If they were to make a rush and not choose the right person maybe it will go worse, and it is very difficult to then go back again and get the right person."

Bhatti's brother, the late Shahbaz Bhatti, served as Pakistan's minister of minority affairs until he was assassinated in 2011 after questioning the country's blasphemy laws.

Bhatti argues the new ambassador must be objective.

"The person shouldn't be one-sided," he said. "He doesn't focus on the one religion, or one persecution. He will treat every religion equally and give his recommendation to the foreign office and government regarding truth and reality."

Avoiding perceptions of bias

Still, some experts warn the office could fall prey to accusations of bias, as did its prototype, the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom in Washington D.C.

Baird has met with several religious leaders and representitives to discuss his plans for the office, including the Aga Khan, right, in Paris last September. (Foreign Affairs handout)

Created in the 1990s, the U.S. office has been criticized from several quarters, including from within the U.S. State Department, for being primarily dedicated to protecting and promoting Christianity overseas.

As CBC NEWS reported last year, internal Foreign Affairs documents showed nearly all of the panellists who participated in a closed-door consultation with Foreign Affairs last fall in Ottawa were drawn from Western religions, primarily Christianity. Few Muslims were in attendance and there were no Muslim panellists.

Arvind Sharma, a Canadian scholar of religion, has been carefully monitoring the government's plans, and says the idea presents a great opportunity for Canada on the world stage.

But the McGill University professor warns that's only if Canada avoids promoting proselytization.

"Everybody has the right to change their religion," Sharma says. "But somebody else's right to ask me to change my religion is a different thing. There is a lack of clear recognition of this point in the entire discourse in this field. Because Christianity is a missionary religion it does not see the need for this distinction."

Sharma got the opportunity to share his concerns in a consultation with some of the office's new staff in Ottawa this summer, and last spring one of Baird's representatives travelled to Montreal and met with him.

Sharma said the officials were "very receptive" to his perspective on the office and to his advice that the office should go beyond a minimalist definition of religious freedom as the freedom to practise any faith.

He believes it should also promote a greater understanding of world religion through education, in order to expand the options available to people.

But he's not sure if those ideas will translate into policy.

"It's hard to say. Governments have a nasty habit of appearing very reasonable, and (then) doing what they want."