Religious freedoms panel drawn largely from western religions

Panellists invited to closed-door consultations on a new Office of Religious Freedoms were drawn almost exclusively from western religions, primarily Christianity, according to documents obtained by CBC News.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, met with the Aga Khan, leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims, in September to discuss the government's proposed Office of Religious Freedoms. Critics suggest non-Judeo-Christian religions have been under-represented in consultations for the office. (Foreign Affairs handout)

Panellists invited to closed-door consultations on a new Office of Religious Freedom were drawn almost exclusively from western religions, primarily Christianity, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

The six official panellists were invited to help lay out parameters for the proposed office during a half-day meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in October.

Each speaker gave a short address before the floor was opened to questions and discussion from some 100 participants who were also invited.

The official panellists were:

  • Thomas Farr, first director of the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom.
  • Father Raymond De Souza, Roman Catholic priest and columnist.
  • Anne Brandner of the Global Peace Initiative and formerly of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
  • Don Hutchinson, vice-president with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
  • Frank Dimant, CEO of B'nai Brith Canada.
  • Susanne Tamas of the Baha'i Community of Canada.

The U.S. office once headed by Farr has been criticized from several quarters, including from within the U.S. State Department, for being Christian-centric, and primarily dedicated to protecting and promoting Christianity overseas.

The overall makeup of the panel and Farr's participation in particular has drawn criticism from Canadian scholars of religion, such as Arvind Sharma of McGill University.

Sharma has warned the government should not follow through on what senior government officials have said is a plan to model the office largely on the U.S. example.

"In my book that is not a good thing," he said. "The [U.S. officials] tend to recognize and emphasize violations of the rights of Christian minorities and Christian evangelical groups to proselytize, rather than using the term 'religious freedom' to cover the religious freedom of all communities. So this is a very deep bias."

Sharma noted the speakers' panel was heavily weighted towards Judeo-Christian religions, but left out Islam.

And he said there were no representatives on the panel from the major Eastern religions, all of which have suffered religious persecution, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Buddhism, and others.

"There's no representation of religions from Indian and Chinese origin … so this is very one-sided," he said. "They are cloning the American institution and completely ignoring the Canadian reality of multiculturalism. America is not self-consciously multicultural."

Conservative MP David Sweet, who attended the consultation, said the office will take a multi-faith focus that is representative.

"Certainly there's nothing concrete that's been decided yet, but … it was a broad public consultation to make sure we were balanced," he said, adding the one-day event was only part of the government's outreach, which has also included written submissions.

'Demonstrated interest'

According to the Foreign Affairs website, Baird has met with the Aga Khan, leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims, to discuss the office. And speaking notes for Baird's parliamentary secretary, Bob Dechert, suggest members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community were present at the Oct. 3 consultation.

The government has remained virtually mum on how the panellists and scores of participants were chosen for the one-day session.

Communications lines for the minister state participants were chosen "on the basis of a demonstrated interest and track record in promoting respect for religious freedom."

Two subsequent lines of the document were redacted under access to information laws.

Other documents contain a biography of Farr, who is now an associate professor at Georgetown University. (The final line of Farr's biography is also redacted, but a similar online version simply states that he and his wife are Catholic, and have three daughters and nine grandchildren.)

In some of his writings, Farr has focused on Islamic extremism as one of the greatest threats to "the international order-and the American homeland," far worse he says, for example, than Serbian Christian-driven nationalism.

Sources who attended the consultation have told CBC News the overall gathering was heavily skewed toward the Christian faith. Of approximately 40 people who made comments following the panelist presentations, about three-quarters were drawn from Christian groups, including Copts and Pakistani Christians. Also asking questions were representatives of Falun Gong and the Baha'i. Only one representative spoke from the Muslim faith.

Some not invited

Also present were the Catholic Defence League and Christian Embassy Canada, an interdenominational group that according to its web site serves "diplomats, senators, members of Parliament and business executives," by helping them network.

Some key human rights groups were not invited.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said he heard there was a consultation and got the sense his group might be invited, but "that didn't happen."

"We weren't invited, and this is troubling," Neve said Tuesday, after appearing before a Commons committee to give expert testimony on the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Neve says his group is "very supportive" of the government's efforts on religious freedoms, but he argued human rights groups need to be at the table to ensure "that it isn't only going to focus on one religion to the exclusion or preference of others."

He added groups like Amnesty can also help navigate sensitive issues — for example, when religious freedom conflicts with the rights of women, or the rights of gays and lesbians, or free speech.

"These are all vitally important human rights issues, which are very often around the world constrained and blatantly violated in the name of religious freedom."