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Friday
Dec092011

I Was a Panellist at the Consultation on the Office of Religious Freedom

By Don Hutchinson

Well, there you have it. I’ve been outed by the CBC. Yes, it’s true. I was a panellist at the Department of Foreign Affairs consultation on establishing an Office of Religious Freedom. I don’t know the selection process for attendees or for the panellists either. The panellist bios might give a hint and the CBC has conveniently published them for ease of reference. My selection might have to do with being a lawyer who works a great deal in the field of religious freedom and my employer, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, alone and in conjunction with the World Evangelical Alliance, has been directly engaged in this area since the 1990s. It could be that I have been a member of the Religious Liberty Commission since 2006 and its chair since 2008. Perhaps, it’s related to my being a member of Advocates International’s Task Force on Religious Freedom (Advocates is active in over 100 countries) or a member of the board of directors for Voice of the Martyrs Canada (part of an international network supporting persecuted Christians around the world). Maybe, everyone ahead of me on the list said no. I didn’t ask. They didn’t tell.

Admittedly, the organizations that I interact directly with on this issue consider international religious freedom matters primarily from the perspective of persecuted Christians. However, there’s good reason for that. I’m a Christian. And Christians are the most persecuted religious group on the planet with an estimated 200 to 250 million facing some measure of persecution on a daily basis (out of a total estimated global population of 2.3 billion Christians). Brian Grim, from the Pew Research Center, and Roger Finke, from Pennsylvania State University, confirm these numbers in their 2010 book The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, where they also note that approximately 170-175,000 Christians are put to death each year simply because of their faith.

Engaging on the issue of persecution, of necessity, also requires contact with other persecuted faith communities. I have friends in these other faith communities. Our contact is largely based in the fact that they are doing work for their faith communities similar to the work I am doing for mine. We respect that about each other and work together when it is effective to do so. Other faith communities face persecution, particularly where they find themselves in the minority. Sometimes minority sects of a majority religion face the worst persecution in a particular nation because they are perceived to be false teachers within their own larger faith community.

Engaging on the issue of persecution also requires some effort to understand persecuting individuals, communities and governments. Is the persecution taking place in a nation where the government and religious leaders/beliefs are closely aligned (e.g. a Muslim majority nation, Buddhist majority nation, Hindu majority nation, etc.) or where the ideology of the government has a strong anti-religious animus (e.g. communist nation, secularist nation, etc.)? There is a need to have an awareness of why the persecution is happening.

About 70% of the planet’s population live in nations where there are either serious (often severe) restrictions on religion and religious belief or there are hostilities, both internal and external to the country, that have some form of religious or anti-religious motivation. To ignore this reality is to be incapable of engaging in well informed or well-rounded international diplomacy in the twenty-first century; and, to relegate immigration practices to sentences of execution should properly founded religious pleas for refugee status be misunderstood or ignored.

It is disappointing that the CBC’s coverage of the development of this new Office evidences the long since disproven view that secularism would triumph in global affairs, a bias that required religion to be set aside in Western engagement with other nations. This view was prevalent in 1960s and 70s North America but has held little sway since the 1980s when North Americans started to become more globally oriented.

The way the CBC has reported on the development of the Office has also, and unfortunately, reflected the accuracy of the findings in David M. Haskell’s 2009 book Through A Lens Darkly: How the News Media Perceive and Portray Evangelicals. Professor Haskell, a journalism professor at Wilfred Laurier University, in his studies of television media treatment of Evangelicals, found that the CBC stood substantially ahead of others in presenting the most negative portrayal of Canadian Evangelicals in the news media. 51 of 77 CBC news reports that were reviewed for the timeframe from 1994 to 2004 offered a negative portrayal of Evangelicals as intolerant (36% of reports), politically threatening (32%), insincere (21%), criminally-minded (21%) and Un-Canadian (14%). You can see there was overlap, with Evangelicals sometimes getting the double or triple slam in CBC reports.

Haskell also considered the attitude from which reporters at the CBC framed their stories that included Evangelicals, finding that 90% of CBC respondents to his survey “said they were atheist, agnostic or non-practicing, compared to just under half of the respondents from the private networks.” The CBC journalists also described the effort they made to distance themselves from being associated with religion.

The CBC’s October 3 story “New ‘religious freedom’ office raises questions” promotes the concepts of “secrecy” and “hidden agenda” that seem to frequent CBC reporting that includes mention of or allusion to Evangelicals and/or the Prime Minister’s attendance at a Christian Missionary Alliance (Evangelical) church. However, the agenda for the Office of Religious Freedom has been hidden from the CBC in plain sight. The concept of the Office was contained in the published platform of the Conservative Party of Canada during the Spring 2011 election – an Office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade that would also relate to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration and the Department of International Cooperation (page 40). The public announcement in April was met with support from then Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff. I am aware that the CBC knew about the consultation in advance because they interviewed people for the October 3 story in the week prior to the consultation and because it aired this story on CBC’s The House on Saturday, October 1, two days prior to the consultation taking place. Other journalists were present on October 3. I inquired of one how she ended up attending. Her answer? When she heard about the consultation she emailed a request to attend.

The CBC’s description that the consultation was “clothed in secrecy” evidences that either the secret wasn’t well kept – given that the CBC put together a program on the consultation a week before it occurred and other journalists found their way to attend – or someone at the CBC has an evident bias that is attempting to make and shape the news rather than report it.

I offer no defence for the Government of Canada’s consultation process; it doesn’t need one. In several consultations that have taken place with Liberal and Conservative governments a similar process has been followed. An invitation list is determined. Some people are on it and some are not – a friend of mine attended another consultation this week to which I would have liked to have been invited, but was not. A suitable venue for the consultation is arranged (which sometimes pre-determines how many may be invited to attend). And, being a federal government consultation in a federal government building the consultation takes place after clearing security and behind closed doors. This is all pretty normal stuff that one would think the CBC could take in its stride … if it didn’t have an evident and evidenced anti-religious bias.

In its “breaking news” December 7 story on the Office, “Religious freedom panel drawn largely from western religions,” our friends at the CBC have drawn the conclusion that Judaism, Christianity and Ba’hai are western religions, even though all three have their established foundations in the Middle East. Even to conclude that Christianity, as it has developed in the West, is a western religion is to allude to the same mistaken conclusion as those who identify the West with Christianity (and to ignore the hundreds of millions of Christians in the southern hemisphere and Asia). Lunch was hosted by the Aga Khan Foundation. Yes, in a western location – Ottawa – but the Isma’ili expression of Islam can hardly be categorized as western, either.

The CBC’s assessment of who spoke at the consultation does not reflect who was present. There were many present who did not speak. Present were friends I know from other multi-faith settings in which I engage. In addition to various streams of Christianity, there were, if I recall correctly, those from the communities of Shia, Sunni and Ahmadiyyah Islam; Ba’hai; Judaism; Hindu; Falun Gong; and Buddhism (I apologize if I’ve left anyone out). This was a gathering of those who could offer input on the development of the office from academic, diplomatic and personal experience. I was impressed with the people in the room, the variety of faith communities they represented and the awareness they had of the importance of religion in international relations in the twenty-first century.

I’m also aware that this has been a wide consultation that has offered a range of options for input, from written submissions to several consultations and a series of meetings with religious leaders across Canada and around the world. I know this because I have been tracking with the media coverage and media releases issued by Minister Baird’s office, all public information.

I don’t know what the Office of Religious Freedom will look like. I’ve shared, read and heard some of the input. But the decision on any office within the Government of Canada will rest with the Government of Canada, as it always has.

Minister Baird has engaged in a broad consultation, both in Canada and abroad, receiving recommendations from a substantial number of faith communities. He has also been informed about the U.S. experience (with its strengths and weaknesses, including self-admitted errors). On that basis, my expectation is that the CBC has propagated another biased attempt at inducing fear about Evangelicals (and other Christians) on a matter – the Office of Religious Freedom – that will bear little resemblance to what has been broadcast and written by CBC journalists.

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