House of Commons Hansard #38 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was registry.

Topics

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:30 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Mr. Speaker, I agree with the comment that we should not be too partisan. I did not think I was being too partisan. I gave a long list of the points on which we agreed, and I expressed skepticism that anything real would come out of this. This is an honest approach, and I have not heard much evidence that there is much meat coming out of this.

In terms of the impact of this office of religious freedom, I would estimate that the two visits that my colleague from Mount Royal made to Egypt when he was minister of justice would do a lot more than this office of religious—

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

October 27th, 2011 / 10:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Andrew Scheer

Order. I will have to stop the hon. member there as his time for questions and comments has expired.

The hon. member for Scarborough—Guildwood, resuming debate.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:30 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Speaker, it has been an interesting debate. I commend the member for Scarborough—Agincourt for his effort in bringing this debate to the floor of the House. It is an important debate and it is a debate that is timely. I appreciate his efforts, both on the floor of the House and elsewhere. It has been a significant effort to bring this debate forward so that it is in the minds of Canadians and in the mind of the government.

We have watched the Arab Spring with various degrees of enthusiasm, trepidation and discouragement. We have watched people from Tunisia and Yemen embrace a desire for freedom and accountable government.

Canada has contributed in its own small way to the yearnings to throw off the yoke of oppression of a madman in Libya. We can only hope that the people of Libya will not descend into chaos that is worse than before. It was also encouraging to see elections take place in Tunisia.

How all this shakes down is probably anybody's guess. However, we do have a tremendous advantage here in Canada, in that we have diaspora from pretty well all over the world and those diaspora can, in many instances, inform us as politicians and also inform the government and give us a tremendous advantage as to how to interpret the events that are happening in the various countries.

That brings me to Egypt. Egypt is easily the largest and most important of the Arab countries. It has had a glorious past and it may yet have a glorious future. However, for many decades, it has wallowed in a state of despair and despondency which has really never let it take its rightful place in the community of nations.

Just a few months ago, Coptic Christians and Muslims stood shoulder to shoulder to throw off the Mubarak yoke. Unfortunately, that unity of purpose and hope has been fractured by the abuse of some Islamist elements that have used this time of turmoil to settle ancient grievances and assert a form of Islam repugnant to the legitimate aspirations of those Egyptians who risked their lives for freedom.

Equally unfortunate has been the wilfully blind attitude of the military to the abuses of minorities, particularly the Copts.

As the sole remaining protection of the security and rights of all Egyptians, the army has been missing in action. Television images of wilful destruction of churches and abuse of worshippers reflects very poorly on the military. The protection of minority rights and religious freedom should be, if it is not already, a core value of the military and those who aspire to lead the country.

One would have hoped that the army would have been Egypt's guarantor of security as Egypt transitions to an accountable post-Mubarak government.

The treatment of the Coptic Christians will be a litmus test for Egypt's success. If the abuse of people and the destruction of property continues, Egypt will fail. The Arab Spring will become an Arab winter in Egypt and the people will return to a new era of despair and despondency that will look a lot like the old era of despair and despondency.

For those who support the religious persecution of this minority, I say, “You are destroying Egypt's lone chance of success”. It is the ultimate in self-limitation. If Egypt does not treat the Copts with dignity, respect and the rule of law, Egypt will fail. No country in the world can prosper if its minorities do not also prosper.

Sri Lanka is a classic example. Sri Lanka has had a low grade civil war for several generations. In 2009, the conflict came to an end without justice for the Tamils. If there is no justice and respect for the religious and ethnic minorities, as it has debilitated Sri Lanka for literally generations, it will also debilitate Egypt.

There is no doubt that Egypt will face serious challenges regardless, but it will inevitably handicap itself if it fails to respect and protect the Coptic minority. The best traditions of ancient Islam protected and encouraged minorities.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:35 p.m.

Mississauga—Erindale
Ontario

Conservative

Bob Dechert Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I know the member is very passionate about the protection of religious freedoms. I have had a chance to serve with him on committees and appear with him on panels. I know that this is an issue that is very close to his heart.

Given his background in the protection of religious freedoms and human rights, I wonder if he could give us some guidance on how the world, the international community and perhaps even individual Canadians can encourage and hold the new Egyptian government to account to ensure that their new constitution and their actual actions protect the rights of religious minorities of all kinds, including the Coptic people in the future democratically elected state of Egypt.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:40 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I indicated earlier, Canada actually has a huge advantage over many other countries.

I was just talking to someone and saying that there are something in the order of 20,000 Coptic Christians in the Mississauga area. There is an enormous advantage and an enormous opportunity to use that group of people to speak to the community of Egypt. They can speak with a voice that is probably far more powerful than any voice that could be asserted from here.

Nevertheless, they would expect and would hope for some support from their government as they try to influence and shape the debate in Egypt. Indeed, if we have installed a new ambassador there, I would hope that he would take advantage of the opportunity, when he speaks with those who aspire to lead Egypt, to tell them the values that Canada holds dear and that first and foremost is the freedom to practice one's religion. We would expect that the Copt minority be protected and allowed to prosper.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:40 p.m.

Liberal

Mauril Bélanger Ottawa—Vanier, ON

Mr. Speaker, mine is more of a comment than a question.

This past summer, I had the occasion to attend a speech given by the ambassador from Egypt at the embassy. It was rather an uplifting speech, where the ambassador said that his country had quite a bit of work to do and would hope to inspire itself from some lessons learned in Canada, one being our democratic system. The other perhaps being how we handle diversity.

That got me to thinking. One of the aspects of diversity, of course, is diversity in religious beliefs and the pluralism that necessitates. We have, in the riding that I have the honour of representing, St. George and St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church. We have the St. Peter and Paul Melkite Catholic Church. We have Anglican churches and Presbyterian churches. We even have the East Gate Alliance Church, where the Prime Minister attends from time to time. We have Roman Catholic churches, mosques and synagogues.

We have another institution that I hope would be involved in some of the debates that will flow from tonight and that is the Global Centre for Pluralism which our government started and the current government completed, and I recognize that, and which is headed by the Aga Khan. I think there is a lot be learned there and a lot to be applied, not only in Canada but around the world, and certainly in Egypt.

The wealth of pluralism, whether it be a religious pluralism, linguistic pluralism or cultural pluralism, Canada has demonstrated that we are a beacon in that. I would hope that all of the factions in Egypt currently would inspire themselves from that kind of behaviour.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:40 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member is absolutely correct. Those who embrace pluralism do win. Those who distance themselves from pluralism lose. It is that simple.

At this point, Egypt appears to be pushing pluralism away. It wants a monolithic religious experience in that country. There are several potential consequences of that. The best and the brightest will always leave and that is a tremendous drain on the nation. Or, there will be kind of a low grade terrorism that goes on where Egypt will use up all its resources providing security to its people. Or, there will be some form of sectarian strife that goes on and on. We have seen countries that have emerged from sectarian strife, such as Ireland in the past few years, and prosperity comes.

Egypt has a choice. It can embrace diversity or it can shun diversity. If it embraces, it wins. It if shuns, it loses.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:40 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Opitz Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is my honour to stand this evening and speak to the issue of ongoing violence and vicious attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt, a subject that has received considerable attention in this House in recent weeks.

On October 17, the House adopted a motion condemning attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt and called on the Egyptian government to ensure that the perpetrators of those attacks bear the full weight of the law. The strong and unequivocal language in that motion highlights how important this issue is to all members on this side of the House and to all Canadians.

The promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law is an integral part of our country's foreign policy. As Canadians, we enjoy the freedom to believe and the ability to express those beliefs without retribution.

It is worth noting that Canada's strong relations with Egypt are based on significant people-to-people ties and growing bilateral trade and investment links. For example, it is estimated that some 55,000 Canadians have roots in Egypt, some 100,000 Canadians travel there every year, and Egypt imports some $630 million in goods and services from Canada. This relationship gives us the right to be open and direct with Egypt and we have expressed our desire to see tangible evidence of transition to democracy, as well as to express our concerns about rising sectarian tensions.

Members will recall that there was an attack on Coptic Christians leaving a Christmas mass in Nag Hammadi in January 2010, as well as a bombing of a church in Alexandria during the celebration of a New Year's mass earlier this year, both of which Canada condemned in the strongest terms. I spoke with our Coptic brothers and sisters and mourned those tragedies.

Last Christmas, I and many members of Parliament went to Christmas mass at many Coptic churches across Canada to celebrate the holiday despite the threats that had been issued against Coptic churches in Canada.

The Prime Minister and the hon. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism visited the Coptic community at St. Mary's church in Mississauga to listen to their concerns and then to express support for these great Canadians.

More recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing his deep concern and calling on Egypt to ensure freedom of religion and to protect religious rights. At the minister's request, Canada's chargé d'affaires met with Bishop Youannes, general bishop and private secretary to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, at St. Mark's Cathedral to express Canada's concern and support. The Minister of Foreign Affairs had also requested that Canada's ambassador to Egypt discuss previous attacks with the Pope.

The chargé d'affaires also provided the bishop with a copy of the resolution adopted by the House of Commons that condemns the attacks. It calls on the Egyptian government to bring the perpetrators to justice and asks the UN Human Rights Council to conduct an investigation into the plight of Egyptian Coptic Christians and issue a public report of its findings.

Indeed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs also made reference to the situation of Coptic Christians during his address at the United Nations General Assembly, as well as during public consultations related to the new office of religious freedom on October 3, 2011.

Egypt is entering a pivotal period in its transition to democratic governance and this significance cannot be overstated. It is the country with the largest population in the Arab world. In fact, one out of four people from Arab countries is Egyptian. It is a nation with an ancient civilization and a vibrant and rich culture that has long been a moderate leader of the Arab, African and Muslim worlds. It has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance. What happens in Egypt has important implications for other countries of the region, for the world economy and for international security, including the security of Canadians.

In the context of the Arab Awakening, the outcome in Egypt has the potential to affect the transitions under way in other countries. The developments in Egypt over the coming months and years will shape the region and the world as we know it. Canada's hope for Egypt is that its transition continues to be based on a clear desire of Egyptians for respect for human rights, the rule of law and the protection of religious freedoms. Canada stands by the people of Egypt, including the Coptic community, as they work toward a peaceful and democratic transition.

As the Minister of Foreign Affairs recently stated in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, “the long history of humanity has proven that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.”

We cannot ignore the numerous attacks against the Coptic community in Egypt, including the most recent attack on October 9 in Cairo between Egyptian security forces and Coptic Christian protestors. Twenty-seven people, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed and over 300 were injured in that tragic event. This was the most violent incident since the fall of the former regime.

Immediately following that incident, the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing our concern and urging “ all involved to work together to build a society where religious communities can live and prosper together and build a new Egypt”. Furthermore, we called for a transparent investigation into the violence and for those responsible to be held accountable.

We have seen positive steps by the Government of Egypt to address tensions. For instance, since the events of October 9, the Government of Egypt has committed to conduct a full investigation into the clashes and to bring to justice the instigators and perpetrators of the violence. An investigation is also under way into the destruction of the church into the village of al-Marinab in early October, which led members of the Coptic community to protest on October 9.

We will continue to monitor the situation. The Department of Foreign Affairs has made numerous representations to the government of Egypt about the importance of promoting and protecting human rights, including those of the Coptic Christians. These representations have been made in Cairo by the Canadian embassy, in Ottawa through the Egyptian embassy, at bilateral meetings between Canadian and Egyptian officials and at the United Nations.

Looking ahead, we recognize that Egypt's future must be charted by the Egyptian people themselves. The best way to accomplish that is through peaceful, orderly, political and economic reforms that enable all Egyptians to participate in the process and that allow the opportunity for dialogue with all parties.

We recognize that there are considerable challenges going forward as Egyptians work to define the foundations of a new Egypt. This is to be expected as Egyptians seek to find new common ground and define the nature of their society and their government going forward. One of the greatest challenges for Egyptians will be to continue to work together to build a strong culture of respect for pluralism and human rights, including religious freedom.

Even with laws in place to prevent discrimination, the importance of strong social norms that make it unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of religion cannot be understated. This will be a long-term process, the road may be occasionally rocky and we urge the Government of Egypt to fully implement the measures to which it has committed.

We have and will continue to be clear on this point. The protection of Egyptians against all forms of extremism during the upcoming election period is vital to ensure that religious minorities are free to play a meaningful role in the political transition.

As I have noted, Coptic Christians have been an integral part of Egyptian society for many centuries and today the overwhelming majority of Egyptians support religious tolerance.

We continue to urge the Egyptian people to sustain their long history of tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Rest assured that the Government of Canada will be watching.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:50 p.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Mr. Speaker, to date, Canada has had a very well earned reputation for its peaceful role in international peacekeeping. Today we talked about a number of measures that the government has already put in place to try to improve the situation in Egypt. However, we can see that the situation has not improved enough. On the contrary, discriminatory actions are still taking place and it is high time they stopped. I would like to have some hope. Many things have been done, but it is clearly not enough.

Does the hon. member agree that what is being done so far about the situation in Egypt is not enough? If so, what more does he think should be done to achieve real change?

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:50 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Opitz Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, Canada has done everything in its power to help alleviate the situation in Egypt. We engage very closely with the Coptic diaspora in Canada. The member for Mississauga—Erindale is a leader on this side of the House in working with that community. We have engaged with 30 Coptic clerics last Friday to help find solutions toward this.

Our diplomatic corps, our ministers, our Prime Minister have stated unequivocally their opposition to religious intolerance, violence and persecution in that country. We will continue to do that.

As I said in my speech, the road will remain rocky. There is a long path to this sort of peace, but we will continue to work very hard and apply lessons learned from other places that Canada has worked very hard to instill freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We will continue to do so in Egypt as well.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:50 p.m.

Liberal

Jim Karygiannis Scarborough—Agincourt, ON

Mr. Speaker, we have exhausted about four hours in the debate. Thousands of people are tuning in to watch. We had a great representation from the Coptic community here tonight from all across Canada. Members on all sides of the House participated. It was a vibrant debate.

This is due to what is happening in Egypt. The world is watching. The people of Canada are watching. It is not only the Coptic Christians in Canada; the entire nation is watching how we will respond and what is happening.

I listened with great interest to members of the government rhyme off dates and I heard the statements that ministers made and everything else. I am sure that the hon. member and everybody else agree that we can condemn the situation and we can probably call the ambassador of the country about our displeasure, but overall the United Nations and the UNHCR are the organizations that we as citizens of this world have to address this issue, and we have to make it work.

The minister was there in September and made some comments, but we have not yet addressed the issue of what happened on October 9. We have yet to take it to task and address it. A couple of months down the line, this might reoccur. It will not stop. I pray that it does, but it will not. It has happened continuously, yet we will say we failed.

My question to the hon. member for Etobicoke Centre is this: will he make a commitment tonight that when caucus meets next Wednesday, government members will speak to the Prime Minister and encourage the Prime Minister to pick up the phone and call Ban Ki-moon to tell him that enough is enough and we will not tolerate this anymore—

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Andrew Scheer

Order. I have to stop the member there to allow the member for Etobicoke Centre a chance to respond.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Opitz Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, we were the first country to call for an inquiry at the UN and we continue to do that through diplomatic means. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and, indeed, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs need take no lessons from anybody on their engagement with the Coptic community. We have worked very closely with them. We have engaged them time and time again. The door remains open. Constructive dialogue is always our mantra, and that is what we will continue to do.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:55 p.m.

Mississauga—Erindale
Ontario

Conservative

Bob Dechert Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Etobicoke Centre for his very thorough analysis of the plight of Coptic Christians.

People should know that before the hon. member was elected to Parliament, in his previous occupation he worked very closely and tirelessly with the Coptic community in the Greater Toronto Area. He is well known to that community. He met with it on numerous occasions and listened to Coptic Christians' concerns. He heard about the atrocities and intervened with the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and other members of the Government of Canada to address the concerns of the Coptic community.

Perhaps he could share with us what he learned from members of that community and whether he thinks the office of religious freedom that the government has announced can help address some of those concerns.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

10:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Opitz Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, the office of religious freedom will be an outstanding institution that this side of the House will bring into being. It is going to provide a voice for not only Coptic Christians but for all religious minorities and for all religions, period. Through this office they will be able to share their ideas, collaborate and work out differences in a very fair, diplomatic, open and transparent way. Canada is going to be a leader in that.