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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > December 2011 > The New Face of Religious Freedom

The New Face of Religious Freedom

Wednesday 30 November 2011, by Kaitlin D’Avella

Cain’s killing of Abel in Genesis 4:1-8 represents the first act of religious persecution recorded in Judeo-Christian history. Fast-forward to today and acts of violence are still committed in the name of religious zeal all around the world. The regime changes underway in North Africa, the systematic disintegration of the Tibetan Buddhist religion at the hands of the Chinese, and the draconian disregard for religious liberty in Russia all point to the pressing reality that religious persecution is commonplace around the world; such intolerance has serious implications for national security and counter-terrorism.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a highly anticipated analysis on religious persecution, concluding that one-third of the world experienced an increase in religious restriction between 2006 and 2009. It is crucial for liberal democracies that revere religious freedom as a fundamental human right, to extend this protection internationally through the monitoring of religious injustice. Instances of religious persecution are simply too grave and frequent for democracies to turn a blind eye.

However, I do not seek to explore the philosophical obligations of the liberal democracy. Rather, I’d like to take a critical look at the American answer to this obligation, and propose also how Canada can improve upon these shortcomings. Liberal democracies must monitor religious freedom in the development of foreign policy in order to respect the fundamental and universal right to religious freedom enshrined in the United Declaration of Human Rights. However, it is essential that the implementation of such a department not mimic the mistakes of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); rather, it must be both pluralistic and thorough in its work.

Canada must first and foremost adopt the ideal of pluralism in the creation of the new office, and work to cultivate an understanding of religious freedom that does not entail proselytism. USCIRF has repeatedly been accused of being a front for evangelicalism, manipulating the term religious freedom as license to convert others.

Montreal’s very own Arvind Sharma speaks of this in his new book, Problematizing Religious Freedom. He fears a new office could be used by missionary religions, especially Christian missions, as a permit to proselytize - attempting to convert someone to a certain religion. If the term religious freedom has a perceived connection to proselytism, this will surely hinder the protection of religious freedom on an international scale.

Additionally, the body of USCIRF commissioners has been composed almost entirely of Christians, with only one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Jewish commissioner to date. In order to encourage diversity externally, it is necessary to cultivate diverse representation internally. As such, Canada must work to clearly promote pluralism in its new office. The plural religious culture of Canada must be reflected in its foreign affairs through a diverse body of commissioners and the monitoring of many different acts of religious injustice all around the world.

Canada’s new office to promote international religious freedom must improve upon USCIRF’s horrific track record by thoroughly monitoring religious freedom around the world. One of the main roles of an office for religious freedom is the release of reports documenting a variety of instances of religious persecution around the world.

USCIRF has come under fire for omitting many nations in which religious injustice runs rampant. For example, Malaysia, Bhutan, and Bangladesh - three countries which have experienced intense religious persecution and violence - were not mentioned in the 2011 USCIRF report. Such important omissions preclude the success of USCIRF’s mission to promote religious freedom around the world.

In the United States Senate, a debate over H.R. 1856—the bill which will reform the failures of USCIRF—is imminent. With any luck, soon, both the United States and Canada will employ offices that truly monitor international religious freedom, making instances of religious persecution less and less common around the world.