Mr. Chair, we are all here participating in this important debate this evening for many reasons. We must ensure that all Canadians are aware of the ongoing persecution of the Coptic people and other religious minorities in Egypt, including the recent atrocities in Maspero in Cairo on October 9.
We must inform the international community of the repeated failure of the Egyptian government to protect the universal human right of freedom of religion for all of its citizens, and we call upon the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate these most recent killings.
We must, as Canadians and as parliamentarians, say very clearly to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt that we are outraged at the killing of innocent and peaceful protesters in Cairo by members of the Egyptian military and that we insist that they submit to an independent UN investigation of this incident.
We must say very clearly to that Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt that they must accept international election observers to the upcoming Egyptian parliamentary elections, which will commence in November, and we must state clearly, for the future democratically elected government of Egypt, that Canadians demand that Egypt's new constitution protects freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, including the rights of all of its citizens to openly worship and practice their chosen faith without restriction or fear of personal safety.
I believe all members will agree that this is an issue that goes beyond politics and partisanship. As members of Parliament, it is our responsibility to debate and lend our voices to these issues. As Canadians, it is our duty to defend the rights of the vulnerable and to give voice to the voiceless.
The promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights is an integral and long-standing priority of Canadian foreign policy. Democracy offers the best foundation for long-term stability, prosperity and the protection of human rights.
The Government of Canada has long engaged Egypt and other governments in the region on the need to bring about reform. For many years, we have encourage Egypt to respect its obligations under international human rights law, and the treatment of minorities is a key aspect of those obligations.
Canada has not been silent on the repeated and continual attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt, and we will continue to make our views known in speaking out for what is principled and just.
Immediately following the violence of October 9, the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing his deep concern and urged all involved to work together to build a society where religious communities could live and prosper together and build a new Egypt. This was not the first time that Canada had spoken out against this kind of violence, which has brought so much pain and suffering.
At Egypt's universal periodic review, undertaken by the United Nations Council on Human Rights on February 17, 2010, Canada expressed its concern regarding the treatment of religious minorities and called for Egypt to remove any categorization by religion on state documents.
I am especially concerned to note that each Egyptian citizen must carry an identity card that discloses their religion, including whether they may have changed their faith. I am told that this forced disclosure of a person's religion is the cause of much discrimination in Egypt.
In January 2010, we condemned the attacks of Nag Hammadi, where innocent civilians congregating for a religious celebration were viciously attacked and killed.
I remember all too well attending what should have been a joyous celebration on that holy Christmas Eve at the beautiful Church of the Virgin Mary and St. Athanasius in my city of Mississauga and mourning the death of innocent Christian worshippers who were gunned down in front of their families as they left Christmas Eve mass. We condemned these attacks and we called on the Egyptian government to immediately bring the perpetrators to justice. Unfortunately, to date, very little has been done to bring justice for the victims of Nag. Hammadi.
On January 1 of this year, we condemned the attacks by extremists on an Alexandria church following the celebration of New Year's mass, which resulted in the death of another 21 worshippers. Once again, I found myself standing in St. Mary's Church in Mississauga grieving alongside friends in the Canadian Coptic community when we should have been celebrating the hope of a new year.
Canadian citizens, members of the Canadian Coptic community and their churches have been threatened. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable in Canada, it is unacceptable in Egypt and it is unacceptable anywhere in the world.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister led the inclusion of an expression of concern about vulnerable religious minorities in the Arab Spring declaration of the G8 at Deauville, France.
We have not only spoken words but we have also taken action. At the request of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada's chargé d'affaires met on October 23 with Bishop Youannes, the general bishop and private secretary to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, at St. Mark's Cathedral to express Canada's grave concern.
Over the past 18 months, we have made numerous representations to the Government of Egypt about the importance of promoting and protecting the human rights of Coptic Christians. These 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 multilateral forums such as the United Nations.
On October 16, I attended and spoke at a prayer service regarding the Maspero massacre at the Canadian Coptic Centre in Mississauga. On October 21, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and I met with more than 30 leaders of the Coptic community on Parliament Hill to discuss how our government could help protect Coptic Christians here and in Egypt.
Last Sunday, I marched alongside thousands of members of the Canadian Coptic community with several fellow members of the House and addressed a rally at Queen's Park in Toronto.
The persecution against the Coptic community must stop and it must stop now. The destruction of a place of worship and the violence directed toward a community because of people's faith is unacceptable. People of faith must be able to practice and worship in peace and security. This message was delivered by the Minister of Foreign Affairs during his first address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, which included a mention of the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt.
During that speech, he reinforced our government's plan to create an office of religious freedom within the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to help protect religious minorities and to promote the pluralism that is essential to the development of free and democratic societies. He further said:
The long history of humanity has proven that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.
It was no coincidence that the Prime Minister first announced our commitment to create the office of religious freedom in April of this year at the Canadian Coptic Centre in Mississauga.
Our overriding hope for Egypt is that its transition will continue to be based on the clear desire of Egyptians for respect for human rights, the rule of law and the protection of religious freedoms. It will be especially important for the Government of Egypt to ensure that Copts and other religious minorities are protected from violence during the upcoming election period and that they are free to play a meaningful role in the political transition.
Canadians enjoy the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society in which human rights are respected. We are also keenly aware of the struggles that religious minorities face around the world. It is our common duty to defend the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities under threat abroad and, through our combined efforts, we are confident that the office of religious freedom can help to do just that.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs recently said:
Our positions will not soften, our determination will not lessen, and our voices will not be diminished until all citizens can enjoy the freedoms and rights we hold to be universal and true.
This is a challenging task but then again Canadians stand for what is right, not what is easy. I have no doubt that we are up to that challenge. We stand ready to support and assist the Egyptian people, including the Coptic community, as they face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.