Hot! Harper’s very political religion

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sat Jan 28 2012.   By Haroon Siddiqui, Editorial Page

It is wrong to accuse Stephen Harper of mixing church and state just because he wants to promote religious freedom worldwide.

First, church and state are not all that separate in Canada. Why else do you think Ontario taxpayers fund Catholic separate schools? Also, the Charter of Rights recognizes “the supremacy of God.”

Second, freedom of and from religion is a secular principle. A prime minister who promotes it should be commended, not criticized.

It is also unfair to accuse Harper of advancing an evangelical Christian agenda — championing only the cause of Christian minorities abroad.

His game is more nuanced.

His government has spoken on behalf of religious minorities in China, Myanmar and Nigeria. But it has been most vocal about the plight of Christians in Egypt, Iraq and Syria; Christians and Ahmadis in Pakistan; Bahais and Christians in Iran; and Ahmadis in Indonesia.

Most of these groups in Canada have been courted by the Conservatives as part of Jason Kenney’s electoral “ethnic strategy.” Their representatives were invited to the Tory election rally last year at a Coptic Christian church in Mississauga, where Harper promised to champion religious freedoms globally.

Coptic voters helped Conservatives win Mississauga-Erindale in 2008 and retain it last year. Its MP, Bob Dechert, has since been named parliamentary secretary to Foreign Minister John Baird and is helping to set up the Office of Religious Freedom.

Domestic partisan Conservative considerations are being turned into Canadian foreign policy, just as the Tory wooing of Jewish Canadian voters paralleled the Harper government’s support of Israel.

Incorporating domestic public concerns into foreign policy is desirable. Except that Harper’s overall foreign policy has consistently ignored Canadian public opinion, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the United States. But he does respond to special interests, in return for votes.

Not just that. In the religious freedom campaign, the Tories have exploited “old country” fault lines among immigrants. Instead of minimizing such divisions here, as has been our tradition, they have fanned them.

Not just that. While picking off disaffected immigrant groups that came here from Muslim countries, the Tories have adopted the anti-Muslim bigotry of some — or shown their own.

The government has systematically cold-shouldered the 750,000-strong Canadian Muslim community. It does not talk to its main organizations.

Instead, it talks to a handful of dissidents. An equivalent would be for Ottawa to boycott all mainstream churches, synagogues and temples as well as Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist cultural and professional groups, while consulting only their critics.

Representative Muslim groups have also been ignored in the consultations Baird has held on religious freedom. Citing privacy, his office refuses to release the list of 110 people it invited to Ottawa on Oct. 3 and Toronto on Jan. 18.

“No opportunity was given to mainstream Muslim groups,” says Wahida Valiante of the Canadian Islamic Congress. Only at the second meeting, one imam was invited — that, too, at the last-minute, “as an after-thought.”

“The Muslim community is totally excluded by this government,” she says, echoing three others I spoke to.

The religious freedom office is going to be tiny — $5 million year and a staff of five. It cannot duplicate the well-resourced U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which produces scrupulously fair annual reports with country-by-country details.

The Ottawa outfit will, by necessity, be selective. All the more reason for it to be objective. Yet Baird and his colleagues have spoken out mostly on behalf of selected minorities in Muslim nations. The plight of these groups is real. But they are not the only ones facing brutal religious discrimination.

Shiite minority Muslims are regularly targeted in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and rarely provided proper state protection. The Shiite majority in Bahrain has been persecuted for decades by the Sunni king. And it has been brutally put down for demanding democracy.

The Sunni majority in Syria is targeted by the murderous regime of Bashar Assad, controlled by his Alawite minority.

Sufi Muslims, who follow an esoteric form of Islam, are denied religious freedom in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The problem of religious persecution is worldwide. A third of the world’s population suffers government or social restrictions because of faith, according to the Pew Forum on Religion, a Washington-based research group.

It says that restrictions on religious freedom have been rising not only in the Middle East but also China, Russia, Africa, Asia and even Europe.

How does Harper decide where to wade in?

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