The New Missionaries

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Paul Wells Introduces the New Missionaries

Paul Wells

Macleans Columnist

Today we’re pleased to launch a new series debating the federal Conservatives’ plans for an Office of Religious Freedom at the Department of Foreign Affairs. Maclean’s is presenting this series in partnership with the Canadian International Council, a non-partisan, Canada-wide organization established to strengthen Canada’s foreign policy.

The debate we’re launching today concerns one of the most unusual items in the Conservatives’ 2011 election platform. Last year the party promised an Office of Religious Freedom to “promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canada’s foreign policy.” Nine months later, all signs indicate the government is set to launch this office. The cost is modest, $5 million, but the departure from the policies of previous governments is striking. And worth discussing.

What’s the proper place of religion in Canada’s foreign policy? Is it in Canada’s national interest to promote religious freedom abroad? Will all religions receive equal protection? Will other types of rights have to take a back seat?

The CIC has lined up an impressive group of academic experts to discuss this question. Maclean’s bloggers will weigh in as the week continues. And we look forward to hearing from you too.

A Look At Religious Freedom Around the World

Restrictions on religious freedoms are growing around the world. This infographic lays out the scale of the issue. >>

In Defence

Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

In establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, the present government is not putting religious freedom above other human rights for the simple reasons that freedom of religion implies the other basic human rights. >>

Director, The Religious Freedom Project, Georgetown University

Promoting religious freedom abroad is important for humanitarian reasons, but for strategic reasons too. Canada benefits from a stable Middle East, and the stability of countries like Egypt depends on getting the religion-state balance right. >>

Professor of Politics and Faith, University of Oklahoma

By establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, Canada will gain the admiration and respect of a growing global network of human rights groups, scholars and heroes of conscience. >>

In Opposition

President, Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership

Creating an Office of Religious Freedom may not be such a good idea if there is no strategy for dealing with conflicts between religious freedom and protection of other human rights, and if the Office does not promote freedom of conscience as well. >>

Former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News

Promoting religious freedom abroad serves immediate political interests in Canada, but little else. Not only will it not help the countries it targets, it will detract from Canada's international reputation. >>

Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University

Establishing an Office of Religious Freedom implicitly elevates religious freedom above other human rights that are more essential than religious freedom. >>

Background Reading


  • Foreign Minister Baird’s address at the Office of Religious Freedom stakeholder consultations.

  • Foreign Minister Baird’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on the Office of Religious Freedom.

  • The 2011 Conservative Party Platform that originally proposed the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom.

  • The U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom.