Address by Ambassador Bennett to the Conference on Freedom of Religion in Kazakhstan

March 19, 2013 - Astana, Kazakhstan

Canada’s Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief: The Foundation of a Just and Tolerant Society

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It gives me great pleasure to be here today to deliver my first speech as Canada’s Ambassador of Religious Freedom. I want to thank Kazakhstan for giving me this opportunity to speak about the issue of religious freedom or belief and Canada’s efforts to promote and defend this core human right.

As Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bob Dechert, outlined earlier in his eloquent remarks, religious persecution is increasing around the world. Let me begin by saying firmly and unequivocally that this is unacceptable.

Freedom of religion or belief speaks directly and is inherent in our human dignity. Each one of us holds sacred our way of relating to the world, and it is our faith that is central to our human experience. All of us have the right and the freedom to express and manifest our spiritual beliefs, and this right and this freedom must be upheld and defended.

Indeed, all of us must have the freedom to live a life of dignity without fear of persecution. Fundamental to this is the freedom both privately and publicly to profess our faith in the divine.

I am reminded of a quote by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who was a French Jesuit priest, paleontologist and philosopher. He said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

As we discuss freedom of religion or belief at this conference today, I wish to emphasize that this is not a theological issue—it is a human issue, and every society must recognize the basic human dignity of all, regardless of faith.

Being here today to present Canada’s views on religious freedom or belief is a momentous occasion for me personally, as I feel it is a great honour to have this privilege to serve my country and speak out on behalf of all those families who face the risk of violence and persecution around the world. Theirs is a precarious existence simply because they wish to practise their faith in safety and security.

As many of you know, Canada has made the promotion and protection of religious freedom or belief a foreign policy priority. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, recently said when officially launching Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom:

“The cause is just. The need is urgent. And our responsibility is clear. As Canadians, as citizens of a free country, we have a solemn duty.” He went on to say that “democracy will not find—democracy cannot find—fertile ground in any society where notions of the freedom of personal conscience and faith are not permitted.”

In noting the widespread and increasing violations of religious freedom, the Prime Minister clearly stated that “we are compelled to do more by the sheer number and gravity of the offences against this fundamental right around the world and the assault it implies on democracy itself.”

So as I stand here today, I am convinced that history has shown us that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable, and it is our duty to uphold the rights of the afflicted and to give voice to the voiceless.

It is for this reason that the Canadian government has created the Office of Religious Freedom within Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. Again, as Canada’s first Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I will ensure that my office works with international partners to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief around the world. We will focus on protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat, opposing religious hatred and promoting Canadian values of pluralism abroad. We will seek to engage in open and frank discussion regarding fostering freedom of religion and support for pluralism by promoting the ability of religious communities to manifest their faith and to contribute openly in a free and secure environment.

The goals of the Office of Religious Freedom reflect the core values of Canadians: democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the Office responds to the wishes of Canadians to stem the persecution, violence and repression directed against many religious minorities around the world.

Indeed, Canada includes many ethnicities and many faiths, and it contains many voices, but we share one humanity. We share one world, a world in which we must engage with each other as human beings and recognize in each other a dignity that demands true action: respect and tolerance of religious diversity and protection of freedom of religion and all that it implies.

As I look around the world, I am shocked, like many others, by the level of violence and persecution levied against religious minorities.

We are deeply concerned about the situation in various parts of the world where individuals, including Ahmadiyya Muslims, Bahá’ís, Chaldean and Coptic Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Jews and Muslim Rohingyas, among others, experience difficulty in their ability to worship and practise their faith in peace.

Religious minorities who face persecution will know that they have a friend and supporter in Canada. We will continue to strongly condemn all attacks on places of worship, whether at temples, synagogues, shrines, mosques, gurdwaras or churches. It is of utmost importance that every individual is able to practise his or her faith free from the threat of violence and discrimination.

Canada cannot and will not condone such egregious and cowardly acts that target religious minorities.

For example, in Iran, Bahá’ís and Christians face harassment, imprisonment and, in some cases, death.

In Pakistan, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus are vulnerable to persecution and violence. Recently, I was deeply shocked and outraged by the senseless violence in Lahore that left over 150 Christian homes in flames following allegations of blasphemy. While public and political officials moved swiftly to condemn the violence against the community, we all must do more to ensure that individuals and families are no longer targeted simply because they practise one particular faith.

Elsewhere, we watch in horror as sanctuaries are destroyed and worshippers are attacked and in some cases slaughtered: Shiite Muslim pilgrims in Iraq, Coptic Christians in Egypt and Christians at worship in Nigeria. The list, appallingly, goes on and on.

To echo Canada’s Prime Minister, “In the face of these injustices and atrocities, Canada will not be silent. Indeed, Canada has not been silent.” He continued: “Canada has spoken out consistently and emphatically. Without fear or favour, Canada defends human rights around the world. And we have not only spoken out; we have also taken action.”

We will continue to voice our concern when the marginalized and downtrodden are persecuted for their religious beliefs. I am heartened and emboldened by those who speak out, thus putting their own safety at risk so that others may enjoy the same rights and freedoms—leaders such as Shahbaz Bhatti, the inspiring and courageous Minister for Minorities in Pakistan, who was assassinated two years ago for promoting freedom of religion or belief for all people of faith and speaking out against religious persecution.

Canada, by its very pluralist and multicultural nature and history, is well positioned to promote freedom of religion. Canada has been a staunch defender of human rights on the world stage for many decades. Canada is a country that is defined by its tolerance, peace and security; our diversity gives us a unique perspective on the world. I will draw from the wealth of knowledge of Canada’s diverse religious communities to promote religious freedom around the world.

I would like to share an appropriate quotation from one of Canada’s great Prime Ministers. On the day Prime Minister John Diefenbaker introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament, he said, “I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”

With this in mind, as Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I will ensure that my office will oppose religious hatred no matter which religious community it is directed toward. In my view, it will reflect the very best of Canadian society. Furthermore, we are determined to work with partners around the world to support, promote and protect the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society. We will defend those who have religious faith and those who do not hold a particular faith so that they might fully exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief.

We will continue to work with our partners where we can, and we will not be afraid to speak out with a strong, independent voice to support freedom of religion when we need to.

In closing, I invite you all to heed the call for greater openness and respect for the dignity of all human beings and the freedom to worship and manifest religion in a way that brings peace to our communities and to our world.

I am emboldened to act. I urge you all to join Canada and all others who stand up for religious freedom or belief and human dignity for all. If we pursue the truth, we will accomplish the good.

Thank you.