Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House to talk about this motion. I would like to congratulate the hon. member for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan on this initiative.
One of my proudest accomplishments in this place was having played a role during the previous government in the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom. I would like, therefore, first to address the reason in principle that this office is necessary; second, to describe why it is particularly urgent at this time that Canada and like-minded democracies emphasize the protection of vulnerable religious minorities; and third, to offer some practical reflections on why I believe this is necessary to the Department of Foreign Affairs, now Global Affairs. Fourth, I hope to have time to say a word about the reality of the genocide being inflicted against vulnerable religious minorities in the world today.
First, I reject the assertion of the members opposite that there is no such thing as a hierarchy of rights. Of course there is. We can see it right in the charter. Certain rights are categorized as fundamental rights and others as democratic or procedural rights. There are administrative rights. There are political preferences that our friends on the left in particular like to conflate into rights. However, to suggest that all of these have the same legal or moral weight as, for example, the right to life is illogical.
By the way, I will be splitting my time with the member for Peace River—Westlock.
If we say that the right to obtain a driver's licence has the same moral and legal weight as the right to life, we are clearly misunderstanding the very perception of rights.
Second, this notion that all rights are indivisible and equal and that we therefore cannot prioritize any is manifestly false, as the members opposite have demonstrated. Each of them, in their speeches, emphasized particular sets of rights that they think the Government of Canada ought to prioritize both domestically and internationally, and they are right to do so. However, to suggest that to prioritize the protection of people who are facing genocide because of their faith convictions or their conscience is somehow to diminish other rights is offensive and illogical.
Why ought we, then, to prioritize freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?
One of the great former prime ministers of this place, the Right Hon. John Diefenbaker, when he introduced the Bill of Rights here, spoke about the sacred character of man. In that speech he was reflecting a long tradition in liberal democracy since the Enlightenment, the view that there is something special in the character of humankind in the possession of inalienable rights, the source of which is not the state or an electoral majority or judiciary or talking. Rather, there is a sacred character in the human person from which flow inalienable rights. The preamble to our own Charter of Rights from 1982 echoes John Diefenbaker's sentiment, which echoes all of the great documents of liberal democracy when it says in the preamble, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:...”
Why does it say that? Was it just some sort of accident that former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau effectively wrote that into the preamble of the Charter of Rights? No, because he understood what Diefenbaker meant by the sacred character of man. He understand what the founders of the American republic, for example, meant when they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights....”
If we reflect on this notion of the sacred character of man, man not being some animal but possessed with a unique and inviolable dignity, it is from this that flows religious conviction or its absence. That is why this is such a priority.
That is why a great man who lived through the 20th century, what he called the “century of tears”, a man who lived through the twin totalitarianisms of Nazism and communism, St. John Paul II, said that the first and primordial right is the right to freedom of conscience and religion, because it is through these rights that we define our deepest commitments of who we are as human persons. That, I submit, is why it is appropriate to understand the central nature of the theme of conscience and religion in the broader spectrum of rights.
Second, why is it particularly urgent at this time? It is because we are facing, as all of the data demonstrates and as colleagues of mine have introduced into debate, perhaps an unprecedented wave of violent persecution against members of religious and confessional minorities around the world.
Every day, without exaggeration, there are massed acts of violence purposely targeting people because of their religious confession or lack of it, whether it is the arrest of Uyghur Muslim dissidents in the Xinjiang region of China or the self-immolation of Buddhist Tibetans on the Tibetan Plateau to protest the illegality of their practising their ancient faith.
Whether it is religious minorities in Sri Lanka who face harassment and persecution because they are Muslim, or Hindu, or Christian; whether it is the Catholic schoolgirls who were beheaded in last year in Mindanao on their way to school for the crime of being Christian; whether it is the bombs that go off in Ahmadiyya Mosques in Pakistan, or Ismailis or Shia who are targeted for violence in Pakistan, in Yemen, and in so many other places; whether it is peaceful Sunni Muslims who are targeted daily for bombing by violent Salafis and Wahhabis because their form of Islam is considered insufficiently extreme, right across the world we see these waves. Indeed even in the liberal democratic west, we see a growing sense that the freedoms of religion and conscience need to be impinged by the state.
I submit that now it is more urgent than ever. Indeed, one of the reasons that instigated the former government's creation of the Office of Religious Freedom was the visit to this place in February 2011 of a dear friend of mine named Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs in Pakistan, the first and only non-Muslim minister ever in the Pakistani cabinet. He talked to us about the persecution of Hindus; Sufis; Ahmadiyyas; Shia; Christians, both protestant and catholic; of Parsi Zoroastrians; and all of the minorities without proper state protection in his country. He talked to us about how he was facing a fatwa, because of his defence of those who had been brought up on false charges of blasphemy, including the young peasant Christian girl, Asia Beebi, who continues to swelter in a Pakistani jail under the threat of death.
He was a living witness to us, a sign of contradiction against this wave of hatred based on religion. He went back to Pakistan, and 12 days later was shot 21 times when he left his home that morning. His witness in this place helped to inspire parliamentarians of all parties to support the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom to say that Canada will not stand by passively in the face of such a wave of violence and persecution.
This country has always been a voice for the voiceless, a defence for the persecuted; and before this office was created, I, as a minister in the previous government, sought to have members of our foreign service prioritize these issues. I was always told not to do so publicly because we did not want to embarrass other countries or detract from bilateral relations.
Then when I would go to meet foreign leaders privately, like Prime Minister Gillani in Islamabad, our senior diplomats told me not to raise these issues privately lest we upset bilateral relations.
That is my last point, the functional problem that needed to be addressed, where these issues, for whatever reason, were not being addressed frankly and forthrightly by our foreign service.
Now, I am proud to say, thanks to the good work of Ambassador Bennett and his coworkers at the Office of Religious Freedom at our missions around the world, this is being emphasized, not to the exclusion of other rights and concerns, and Canada is now playing a leadership role. Thanks to our leadership, we are now chairing the international contact group on religious freedom.
Let us continue this relatively modest but still powerfully important initiative for the defenceless.