Religious Freedom: The Diplomatic Dimension

Anne Leahy, Canada's representative to the Vatican, on how Canadian foreign policy can help protect religious freedom abroad.
By: /
July 3, 2013
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From Iran to Indonesia, too many people continue to face persecution on the basis of religious affiliation. But can Canadian diplomats promote religious freedom without compromising progress on other diplomatic goals? We asked Anne Leahy, Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, to evaluate Canada's historic engagement with religious freedom and explain how Canada's foreign policy practitioners could usefully approach this issue going forward.

How can Canada support religious freedoms abroad as an element of our foreign policy?

Religious freedom is a basic human right, and one that is well covered in international human rights law. I think we have the instruments, the legislation, and the protections necessary to support it at home and abroad.

The way to do this effectively is to continue what we’ve done throughout the decades – to be present at discussions in international fora, particularly within the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, and the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe, and active in the global discussion on how to advance international law and monitor its implementation in various countries.

Canada can also support religious freedom by monitoring and responding to the cases that are brought to our attention by constituencies at home. 20 percent of Canadians were born abroad, and many are part of networks connecting them to their families and relations back home.  In the case of a situation in which their relatives might be persecuted for their religious faith, these Canadians have a vested interest in our country engaging. We often see religious leaders lobbying for this engagement, bringing to the attention of their MPs cases where people need help. Now the Office of Religious Freedom and its policy and development programming can help monitor and respond to threats to religious freedom as well.

Can you point to an example where the Canadian government has responded effectively to a threat to religious freedom?

In Iraq, during the upheaval two years ago, we recognized the plight of Christians. There were a series of attacks on churches, including bombings. We denounced this violence – we’ve done the same when mosques have been attacked in other parts of the Middle East—but in this particular case the humanitarian aspect was stark. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration was very prominent in facilitating the transfer to Canada of relatives of Iraqi-Canadians who had been injured as a result of the violence.

What does the Office of Religious Freedom signify to you about Canada’s approach to religious freedom? Is it changing?

In the 1990s, then Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said in many speeches that religious freedom was a fundamental human right, and an integral part of our security policy and human security agenda. We were working with many countries, including Norway, on interfaith dialogue at the time. I think that twenty years later, the Office of Religious Freedom establishes two things: firstly, greater visibility for the issue today about religious freedom. In many parts of the world, there is increasing persecution and violence dominates. This is of concern to Canadians, especially those who come from these regions. We need to show – visibly – that we’re aware of this problem, that we are addressing it, and that we’re doing so in a more substantial way than we were before. Secondly, it also brings together different strands of addressing the issue of religious freedom. And I would say it even goes beyond that, as the new Office of Religious Freedom seeks to address the need for religious literacy when examining issues in other countries. This dimension of its agenda hasn’t received as much attention yet.

How should religion factor into our larger foreign policy calculus?

If you look at the broader issue of religion as a dimension of foreign policy, it shouldn’t be overemphasized. Given the sensitivity of religion in certain parts of the world, you don’t want to create a further obstacle to dialogue and productive outcomes. Nevertheless, in the Canadian context, practitioners of Canadian foreign policy – diplomats, foreign affairs workers, and others working in foreign relations – all need to be more aware of how important religion is for the people we deal with. I’d argue that this is even more important today than it was thirty years ago. As Canadian society has generally become secularized, there is less awareness and less knowledge about the content of world religions and the importance it has in different cultural contexts. It is still an identifier for individuals and for entire nations.

How should the next generation of Canadians approach the promotion of religious freedom abroad?

Young people today have access to so much information, and they have a lot more contacts around the world. Fundamentally, whether you’re in foreign affairs or a legal practitioner, the base value to espouse is respect for customs – for people who’s views differ from your own. As long as they are reasonably held, they’re just as valid as anyone else’s. A few words of wisdom – a Lebanese individual I knew in Moscow at the time of the Soviet Union shared an important point with me.  He said, “You can talk to people who have radically different views from you, from communists to anti-communists. As long as you have respect for your own beliefs, as long as you stand for something, you’ll be respected by those that you seek to engage with.”

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