Mr. Speaker, on May 16, 1919, Molly Pinto was born in Karachi, Pakistan, then part of greater India. Her family was originally from Goa, a Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, which had and continues to have a large Catholic population. She grew up in a Goan Catholic colony in Karachi. She remembered a very happy childhood, one populated by children and then young adults from all different ethnic and religious communities: Goan, as well as indigenous Pakistani Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, etc. Various languages were spoken: English; Konkani, the Goan language; Urdu; Hindi; etc. She recalls how people from different communities shared meaningful friendships. They would bring sweets to their Muslim neighbours at Christmastime, and their neighbours would bring them sweets for Eid.
Molly Pinto is my wife's grandmother, and the Pakistan that she grew up in looked a lot like how Canada looks today. Those on the left and on the right who are willing to casually label religious intolerance as part of the culture or religion in Pakistan do not know their history. Countries like Pakistan had a rich tradition of multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith co-operation long before Canada even existed, and that tradition continues in the living memory of many who are still with us today. I am sure that some members of the House remember that history from their own experience, and hope and pray for a return to it.
Molly remembers how increasing tensions emerged during partition, when India and Pakistan achieved their independence and separated from each other. Her perception was that when people who had been pushed out of other places in present-day India came to Pakistan, often after seeing or experiencing violence at home, they brought a level of suspicion and tension that felt alien in what had previously been an idyllic setting.
Still, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was very clear about the need to continue Pakistan's pluralistic traditions after independence. Like Molly, Jinnah was born in Karachi. His family were Gujarati Shia Muslims, and as a Shia, Jinnah was in many senses part of a religious minority as well. He also attended Christian schools.
Jinnah had a vision for Pakistan that made the protection of minorities central to its success. Pakistan adopted a flag which clearly demonstrated his vision, a green section to represent the Muslim majority, and a white stripe for the minority communities.
Here is what Muhammad Ali Jinnah said in an address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan in 1947:
You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. [...] We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.
On September 9, 1968, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was born in Lahore, Pakistan. He would go on to become the country's first federal minister for minority affairs. In 1979, when Shahbaz was 11 years old, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This event would have a consequential impact on world affairs, in Pakistan, and in the life of Shahbaz Bhatti .
Western aid, and aid from other Muslim countries, was funnelled through Pakistan to support the mujahedeen in its jihad against the Soviet Union. The mujahedeen defeated the Soviets, but Pakistan paid a heavy price for its involvement because of the significant injection of extreme and intolerant ideas that came with the mujahedeen and subsequent rise of the Taliban. The rise of extremism in Iran, as well, had a negative effect on Pakistani pluralism.
Importantly, none of these developments in the Muslim world were inevitable. They reflected the push and pull of history, perhaps some policy mistakes, perhaps some policy decisions which were necessary in their time but that had unintended consequences. Either way, the evident decline of pluralism in Pakistan was not inevitable, and it is not irreversible.
Shahbaz Bhatti knew that. As federal minister for minorities in Pakistan, he visited Canada. He came here in February 2011, the month before his assassination. He met with the former prime minister as well as other ministers. He knew then how vulnerable he was. His visit followed on the heels of the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, a Pakistani Muslim who, like Shahbaz, was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws used to target religious minorities.
It was Shabazz's legacy and the advocacy work of his family here in Canada which led the previous Conservative government to act to create the Office of Religious Freedom. It was not some theoretical political statement about abstract rights, but an office that would and has made a real difference for people in Pakistan and all around the world.
What is the Office of Religious Freedom? The Office of Religious Freedom was established as a division of foreign affairs, now Global Affairs Canada, in the last Parliament. Incidentally, the creation of this office was announced inside a mosque. The office has an annual budget of $5 million, which is a modest sum in the scheme of things. This is 1/180th of the cost of the government's recent changes to public sector sick leave, and it is well underneath the cost of renovating 24 Sussex Drive.
This office does three main things. First, it provides training to the public service. This training is crucial to help our public servants understand underlying religious tensions and how to advance human rights and Canada's interests in the context of these dynamics.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “...if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”
Helping Canada's foreign policy be informed by an understanding of religious tensions is critical in the current environment.
Second, this office does direct advocacy, speaking out about and bringing attention to the plight of persecuted religious minorities.
Third, this office funds direct on-the-ground projects with local partners in countries like Pakistan, projects which advance religious freedom. That is in fact where most of the budget goes.
This office has had considerable success. However, members do not have to take my word for it. Here is what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Consular Affairs, the member for Mississauga Centre, had to say recently about the work of the office in Ukraine:
As a part of broader efforts to cultivate long-term stability, tolerance, and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, Global Affairs Canada, through the Office of Religious Freedom, is supporting two projects in Ukraine to promote interfaith dialogue and to strengthen the capacity of local authorities to respond to hate crimes.
As the hon. member is aware, the Office of Religious Freedom has advocated on behalf of religious communities under threat, opposed religious hatred and intolerance, and promoted pluralism and respect for diversity abroad.
The quote continues:
As the Minister of Foreign Affairs has already stated repeatedly, we are grateful for Dr. Andrew Bennett's service as the head of the Office of Religious Freedom and for his ingenuity, sensitivity, and competency over the past three years.
That is clearly very high praise for this office from the member for Mississauga Centre.
Here is what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the member for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, had to say recently about the work of the office in Nigeria:
In its efforts to combat Boko Haram's history of inter-communal violence in the region, Canada, through the Office of Religious Freedom, supported a two-year project to promote interfaith dialogue and conflict mediation in Plateau State, Nigeria. We are well aware of the good work it has done. The project successfully developed a community-based mechanism to help defuse tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, and has been used by the Nigerian government on various occasions, including in response to attacks and bombings in Jos and in the lead up to Nigeria's elections in March 2015. While this phase of the project concluded in January 2015, our government is pleased that Canada has been able to continue to support this model for inter-communal dialogue in neighbouring conflict-affected regions in Nigeria....
Listening to those eloquent words from Liberal members, one might wonder who could possibly be opposed to this office. Who could possibly oppose this clearly good and necessary work? Given the evidence and given this good work, one might be inclined to think it would be obvious that this office should be renewed. I believe it is obvious. However, there have been critics, and it is important to take this opportunity to respond to some of the arguments that the critics have made.
There are some who seem to have something of an allergy to any office of government which uses the word “religion”. They react negatively to any reference to religion in the context of government action. Let us be very clear about this. This office is not about promoting religion. It is about promoting religious freedom. These are two fundamentally different things.
Western democratic governments are not in the business of promoting religion, but all governments have to be in the business of protecting freedom, including freedom of religion. Notably, those who ask for state non-interference in religion are themselves expressing support for religious freedom.
Religious freedom includes atheists. It includes the right not to believe. In fact, atheists have direct representation on the Office of Religious Freedom's external advisory committee. The right to believe as a non-believer is frankly one of the most threatened expressions of religious freedom in the world today. Canada's Office of Religious Freedom advocates for atheists in countries like Bangladesh, where they are particularly vulnerable.
Freedom of religion is not a strictly religious idea. It is recognized in article 18 of the UN charter. It states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
If not about religion as such, what is freedom of religion all about?
The UN charter has it right. Freedom of religion is fundamentally about freedom of thought, the freedom for people to think about their fundamental purpose, their place in the universe, and then to act that out how they see fit. This freedom of thought is clearly essential to the human experience. Freedom of religion is about so much more than the phenomenological elements of religion. It is in fact something entirely different in kind. Again, the office exists to promote religious freedom, the kind of freedom of thought identified in the UN charter. It is not about promoting religion.
A second objection we have heard is from those who say that human rights are universal, interdependent, and indivisible, and therefore they do not see a need for a separate office of religious freedom. Of course, we can all agree that rights are interdependent and indivisible. However, we are also well served by centres of excellence within government and within the department of Global Affairs, which focus on specific areas.
To name another example, we have a department for the status of women. Certainly, human rights are universal, interdependent, and indivisible, but we still have, and we should have, a department that focuses specifically on the status of women.
Why is it important that we have these types of centres of excellence? Because to have all types of rights lumped together risks a situation in which no one is focused upon individual specific areas of rights and rights violations. Without specific centres of excellence, individual areas that need attention could risk getting lost in one murky interdependent and indivisible soup.
Interdependence and indivisibility have never before been used as arguments against some degree of specialization. The natural sciences are interdependent and indivisible, yet we are still well served by having those who specialize in chemistry, biology, physics, and in subparts of each.
A third objection we have heard is from those who say that this is merely a political ploy, that the creation of the office was designed for so-called pandering to ethnocultural diaspora communities in Canada. A writer for iPolitics said this in 2013:
Diaspora politics can become a double-edged sword if left in the hands of politicians. As evidence, look no further than the new Office of Religious Freedom — a policy outcome one might expect when parties curry favour with particular ethnic constituencies.
There was something very dark about these kinds of arguments. So-called ethnic constituencies have as much right to expect that their priorities are reflected in government policy as anyone else. It is true that new Canadians, who are more likely to have ongoing personal and familial connections to those facing religious persecution in other countries, tend to be particularly supportive of this office. However, to describe policies that reflect the priorities of new Canadians as pandering is unnecessarily pejorative and it is a unique kind of pejorative tone often used to denigrate policies that are important to new Canadians.
It is certainly also true that this policy is not just important to new Canadians. Members of diaspora communities, which have been in Canada for generations, and really all Canadians, can see the value of the work that is being done here.
A fourth objection we have heard is from those who suggested the office is supposedly just about Christians and the preferencing of Christian concerns in international affairs. Of note should be the fact that this objection and the previous objection are in fact mutually exclusive and yet are often made simultaneously by the same people. The office could not possibly be both about focusing on Christians and also aimed at new ethnocultural communities. However, it would be evident to anyone who looks at the list of projects the office supports that it works with and for a wide range of different communities.
For example, a recent project gave $290,000 to the Aga Khan Foundation for development and distribution of children's books that promoted pluralism among school-aged children in Bangladesh. Working through a Muslim organization, this project also particularly is important to the atheist community, which faces growing persecution in Bangladesh. Non-Christian groups, in fact, Sikh, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Canada have taken the lead on calling for the renewal of this office. Earlier this year, representatives from these three communities sent a joint letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs pleading with him to do the right thing and to renew this office.
A vast range of communities are represented on the office's external advisory committee. Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and, yes, atheists are represented on the external advisory committee as well.
With respect to this objection, it is important to note that this office does provide some support to some Christians. Christians are indisputably one of the most persecuted religious communities anywhere in the world. Long-standing Christian communities, which have existed in the Middle East since almost the time of Christ and since long before Christianity spread to western Europe, or certainly North America, are under intense pressure, which includes, in various cases, systematic discrimination, growing cultural bias, regular violence, and even attempts at total extermination. These people happen to share a faith with western colonizers, but these indigenous Christian communities bear no responsibility whatsoever for colonization. They have as much right to live in peace and security as anyone else.
When I talked to other non-Christian faith groups, strikingly they often raised the increasingly desperate plight of Christians as a matter of significant concern. CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, for example, has been vocal in support of the plight of persecuted Christians, and we should listen to what it has to say in this respect. This office does not focus uniquely on Christians but does not ignore them either.
A fifth and final objection that I hear to the Office of Religious Freedom is that its work is in some way colonialist. A recent commentary piece in the Toronto Star said:
The international promotion of religious freedom by Western states risks repeating “civilizing” colonial missions, imposing fixed standards without sensitivity to cultural and historical specificities...
Those who suggest that the good work this office is doing to advance religious freedom is somehow about advancing narrowly western values clearly do not understand the work of this office or the context in which it operates. This office does not seek to dictate to other countries. It works with and provides vital support for programs on the ground. It works with local leaders and leverages local knowledge. That is why it has earned such high praise from diaspora communities and others with whom it directly works.
This is not about western values but about universal human values laid out very clearly in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those who object to the promotion of religious freedom on the grounds that it is a “western” value are often the same people who have the same objections to efforts to advance gender equality, democracy, and other principles of human society, which have long been recognized as universal.
Because of my family's connection to Pakistan, I can speak best to our work in that country. Very clearly we are not interested in promoting some western construction of what Pakistan should be. We want to see the restoration of the pluralistic Pakistan that my wife's grandmother Molly grew up in. This was her reality. This was Mohammad Ali Jinnah's vision, and this was Chavez Bhatti's dream: the restoration of Pakistan's historic traditions, not the imposition of western ones.
When it comes to this office, the government has refused to give a clear answer. However, with 10 days to go until the current mandate runs out, it is high time it communicates its decision, and this motion is necessary to give people working in this area the clarity they need. Most important, people who rely on this office are waiting for an answer.
If the government recognizes the good work of this office, will it simply say yes so the work can continue uninterrupted? If it is determined to kill this office, could it at least explain why, could it at least give us some kind of a reason?
Two weeks ago, I attended a commemoration held in Toronto to honour Chavez Bhatti. There I met Rimsha Masih, a Christian teenager who was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan and only found safety after being spirited away to Canada. I think of my wife's grandmother's reality as a child in pluralistic Pakistan. I think now of Rimsha's reality with the challenges facing Pakistan. This is why this work and this motion matter so much. For one-quarter of the cost of the recent member's office budget increase, this office is saving lives and giving hope to people like her. Therefore, I urge members to reflect on the good work this office is doing and to please support this motion.