Madam Speaker, I am pleased to join with our colleagues in debating this matter of great importance. It is good to see my friend from Toronto Centre who gave the first speech in this debate. I appreciate his ongoing presence here.
A number of my colleagues have already addressed the unfolding crisis and opportunity that we see in Egypt. I had an opportunity to pay an official visit to Egypt in May 2009 at which time I met with senior ministers in the Mubarak government and leaders of civil society and faith leaders, including the late Sheikh Tantawi, the most important Sunni religious leader in Egypt, as well as His Holiness Pope Shenouda III while I was there on a broader trip of the Middle East.
I will say, in my capacity as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, that Canada continues to have an important immigration program from Egypt. Egyptian nationals have immigrated to Canada for, I suspect, well over a century and we count ourselves fortunate to have more than 100,000 Canadians of Egyptian origin, reflecting the diversity of that country.
I know that all of those Canadians of Egyptian origin are watching this evening's debate here in Canada and, more particularly, the developments in their country of origin, with great concern, some with great optimism and some with a fairly high degree of anxiety.
We would like to assure those Canadians, in fact, all Canadians, that all relevant departments in the Government of Canada are taking every necessary step to provide appropriate services to Canadian citizens and/or permanent residents who find themselves in Egypt. My colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs have already discussed our efforts to facilitate extraction from Egypt of those Canadians seeking to leave the country during this period of relative instability.
My ministry has played an important role in those ongoing extraction efforts and consular affairs because it is important for us to determine that the people seeking to come back to Canada, either through our facilitation or otherwise, are in fact Canadian citizens or permanent residents. For that reason, we have relocated a number of staff from neighbouring countries in the Middle East from other Citizenship and Immigration Canada bureaus to Cairo.
At the same time, because of the instability in Cairo itself, particularly right in the centre in the government sector in which is situated the Canadian Chancery, where I am sure my friend from Toronto Centre was during his recent visit, we have had to suspend a number of our operations at the Canadian Chancery since January 27 to minimize the risk posed to our locally engaged staff. About 80% of those working at the CIC bureau are locally engaged staff, all of whom I met with 18 months ago. They are very loyal servants of Canada. We wish them well. However, for the short-term we do not anticipate to be able to provide the same level of normal service for visas or permanent residency applications there.
When the situation stabilizes and allows us to go back to work, we will certainly do everything we can to respond to urgent requests from people who are emerging from the current situation.
We all hope that the relative instability does not descend into further violence or conflict. We all hope that the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people, which reflect the universal longing for self-government, for respect for human dignity and for freedom of conscience and religion, are the ultimate outcomes in a stable Egyptian government that reflects fundamental human values.
I would like to emphasize the importance and my particular anxiety about the situation of minority communities in Egypt.
We know that Egypt is not a homogenous country. It is a diverse country with religious and ethnic traditions that that go back centuries, at least. For example, Egypt's Christian community goes back to the beginning of the first century.
Recently, terrorist attacks and crime have been directed at the Coptic Orthodox community in particular. And this has been motivated and inspired by a certain type of extremism, so-called Salafist extremism, or by a form of Islamism known as Wahhabism.
That is worrying because in an unstable and unsafe situation, we want to be sure that the rights and safety of vulnerable people, particularly those from vulnerable minorities, are protected.
I would really like to emphasize our hope, and I am sure it is shared by the vast majority of Egyptians, that those vulnerable minority communities are not subjected to violence, harassment, persecution because, let us be honest. Certain minority communities in Egypt, including the Coptic Christian Orthodox community, have faced pressure. They have faced a double standard. Some people have faced in their day-to-day lives a certain degree of unjust discrimination from civil society and, I would argue, certain policies that could be characterized as persecution from organs of the state. In particular, I refer to the unwillingness of the regime to grant permits to build churches, or even repair churches. These constraints on religious freedom often lead to conflict points.
Behind all of that, we have the presence of a small but potentially deadly movement of Salafist Islamists who hate those who they condemn because of their religious convictions and, as we saw tragically on New Year's Eve in Alexandria, who even seek their death, where 23, I believe, innocent civilians were murdered by a terrorist suicide bomber. Similarly, a year before that, on Coptic Christmas Eve, some six innocent civilians were killed at Nag Hammadi. These incidents were preceded 10 years ago by the terrible massacre at El Kosheh.
One of the things that concerns me is that in none of these incidents have there been any successful convictions of the perpetrators. This causes vulnerable communities to believe that the justice system is not entirely just in that country in dealing with extremists, perhaps because some of those extremists have a certain degree of political support more broadly. I would characterize the incarnation of that political support as being the Muslim Brotherhood.
I know that we see in the media coverage and in some of the debates in western liberal democracies a great deal of enthusiasm and almost euphoria about the democratic spirit we see being exhibited on the streets of Egypt. To some extent I share that. We all hope that will be channelled in very positive directions, but we must not be naive. We must not forget that there are people, including some associated with the political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of whose founders, Ayman Al-Zawahri, is the number two in command to Sheikh Osama bin Laden, the leader of the international al-Qaeda network. This is a very serious issue. It is serious for our own security. It is serious for the regional security in the Middle East. It is particularly serious for religious minorities who in the eyes of these Salifist Islamist extremists are kafirs, infidels, who do not enjoy the sanctity of human life. Rather, they are seen as people who can legitimately be targeted for violence and for, in fact, murder.
I raise this as a cautionary note. I think this is why we have heard the Prime Minister say it is our government's hope that while the situation will develop toward a democratic form of government that fully reflects the aspirations of the Egyptian people, that it will do so while protecting the rights of these minority communities. Let us be clear. Maybe this is so obvious we do not need to state it, but it should be stated. Democracy is not simply a system of majority rule. A tyranny of the majority over vulnerable minorities is not a democracy at all. Rather, democracy is a system of government predicated on the inviolable dignity of the human person. It is from that dignity that we derive our right to govern ourselves through democratic processes.
The moment that a majority denies fundamental rights such as the freedom of conscience, freedom of religion or of course the first right, the right to life, as has happened to religious minorities in Egypt, then one could say that it ceases to be democratic or has a certainly impaired democratic character.
Let us be careful. Let us be careful to ensure that we use the good offices of Canada, the democratic west more generally, to work with whatever institutions of civil society may exist in Egypt and with legitimate opposition parties in that country to create a reformed constitutional order of a democratic character which will not tolerate the violation of the rights of religious minorities in general and, I would argue the most vulnerable of them in Egypt in particular, the Coptic Orthodox community.
I have met with Pope Shenouda both here in Canada and in Cairo. I have discussed these matters with him and with other leaders, both lay and clerical, of his community. Understandably, they feel great anxiety and great pressure because of the situation they see in certain aspects of the current developments in Egypt, such as the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood. Let there be no doubt, we have the claim by the Muslim Brotherhood that it has renounced violence and is a mainstream organization willing to participate in democratic life. On the other hand, that does not reflect the historical, ideological or theological roots of that movement. There can be no denying the fact that there is a connection between the fundamental ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and, at the extreme edge, those who are inspired by those ideas sometimes to commit acts of violence. We continue to be very concerned about that.
Of course it is not for Canada or Canadians to dictate the choices the Egyptian people make as they, we hope, practice their right to self-government. However, we do have a role to play, and we have played a role. There have been many ongoing projects that Canada has supported in Egypt to build stable institutions of civil society.
For example, when I was in Egypt, I announced on behalf of the Minister of International Cooperation certain projects to support young and women entrepreneurs to develop external trade markets for their goods. That is one of dozens of examples.
Similarly, we have sought to promote respectful dialogue within institutions of civil society, between the Muslim and Christian communities and different factions of both of those communities. As well, we have consistently called upon the Egyptian government to respect and protect the rights of vulnerable minorities, including religious communities. We will continue to do so regardless of who the president of Egypt is. We will continue as a government to prioritize this issue of protection of the rights of vulnerable minorities not only in Egypt but in the broader region.
Let us face it, those who set off the bomb in Alexandria at All Saints Church on New Year's Eve 2010, those who shot innocent civilians coming out of a church in Nag Hammadi on Christmas Eve 2010, those who targeted civilians at El Kosheh and those who commit similar acts on an individual basis in Egypt share a similar hateful, extreme, dangerous, violent and destabilizing ideology as in other countries in that region. This of course is one of the most significant challenges that we face in the world today. How can we as a country more effectively intervene as a voice for the voiceless, for the vulnerable?
Next week, for example, I will be welcoming to Ottawa Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minority communities for the government of Pakistan, who is the first Christian in the Pakistani government.
He has seen members of vulnerable communities in his country attacked, murdered, tortured, persecuted, be they Ahmadiyya Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Catholics or Protestants. They were attacked by people who shared the same hateful ideology of those who have committed similar acts in Egypt.
It concerns me that some of those people are prowling the streets of Cairo and Alexandria as we speak. It is our hope that the emerging democratic forces will, as a very first order of business, exclude from participation in a government those would tolerate or excuse those attitudes.
More generally, I would say that with the broader strategic situation in the region, it is certainly my hope that a future Egyptian government would realize that it has a profound interest in maintaining a peaceful coexistence with the democratic Jewish state of Israel. It is not in the interests of the Egyptian people, regardless of who governs them, to return to the state of war, of uncertainty, instability and violence that plagued Egypt's relationship with Israel from 1949 until 1976.
I am concerned that the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in a prospective future Egyptian government would be a destabilizing influence. There can be no doubt that organization shares certain ideas and connections with such organizations as the Party of God, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, which now is, sadly, a key part of the government of that country, and the organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip bordering Egypt.
With the apparent increasing influence of Hezbollah with the rejectionism and extremism of Hamas, with the continued instability of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is certainly our hope that the Egyptian people will choose wisely in the coming days and months, will choose to embrace the dignity of a great and ancient civilization and reject those who would drag that country into a downward spiral of violence and extremism.
I certainly join with all of my colleagues in hoping for the best possible outcome and commit myself to play whatever role I can in this Parliament and government to offer Canada's assistance in that direction.