So that gives me a chance to engage directly with foreign
governments on this issue and also meet directly with groups
suffering from issues of lack of religious freedom. In the Ukraine
where I was recently, the government is directly intimidating the
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
I’m also meeting with Canadian groups, different churches
and faith groups to talk about religious freedom issues overseas.
On the policy side, we are looking at how we can best address
issues in countries in which we can engage. We’re interested in
We have a $5 million annual budget, $4.25 million of which
is dedicated to the religious freedom fund, which is for running
different programs in our countries of engagement. At the core of the programs is
wanting to have that dialogue, to engage
government and civil society to advance the
goal of religious freedom. We’re continuing
to roll out different projects. For the first
year we’ve accomplished a lot of what we
set out to do.
f T: When you are visiting countries and the
governments know you are there as a kind
of watchdog for religious freedom, how do they receive you? Is
AB: It’s awkward for them, not for me. At times they don’t necessarily receive Canada coming to talk to them about their own
challenges and government restrictions on their own communities. That would be the same as when I meet with foreign diplomats in Canada. There might be a sense of Canada judging
There is a difference between that and speaking what is true.
Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. It links in
with freedom of expression, gender equality. It’s incumbent upon
us, where we have that in Canada, to speak out.
There is religious persecution that is directly attributable to
actions of government. There are a number of egregious countries like Saudi Arabia. They target any religious community not
connected with well-established faith.
Another type of persecution is the release of social hostility
where one group targets another because of what they believe,
like the persecution of Christians in many countries in the Middle
East, Iraq, Syria, the Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. We
have to be able to engage in both aspects. When speaking with
a government, it can often be a difficult conversation. But it is
inherent truth, the inherent dignity of every human being. That
is what we are speaking of.
f T: Ten out of the 15 countries with the worst religious freedom
abuses are Muslim nations, according to a report released by
the U.S. Commission on International Religious freedom. One
might assume, therefore, that Islam is more prone to religious
persecution. Is this true?
AB: I think there are significant challenges with freedom of re-
ligion in countries that are Muslim majority populated, but it’s
not fair to target that. Muslims themselves are being brutally
targeted in some countries. In China we have Muslims that face
persecution in the northwestern part of the country. We look at
Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan where minority
populations face persecution from the majority. Countries that
are majority Buddhist like Burma or Sri Lanka, where you have
the majority Buddhist population that targets Hindus, Muslims
and Christians in the North. There are all sorts of factors that
can lead to religious persecution in a country. There are religious
factors, socialeconomic, ethnic. So often, violations are linked to
other human rights violations.
f T: When you look at all these different cases of religious perse-
cution, are there similarities between them?
AB: There can be many different things happening such as in
India where we have a lot of Christians that are of lower caste,
and so often when Christians are attacked
in certain states of India there is a caste
element as well.
I think when we look at why people
are being persecuted in the world because
of their faith, we see government restrictions, governments trying to control religious practice in their country to favour
one group over another.
It’s a question of having a very narrow
understanding of what religious freedom is. Former Soviet Union
countries define it very narrowly. It is a restricted freedom to
That is part of it, but it is also the right to openly manifest
your faith in public. The right to change your faith is the canary
in the coal mine. Also the right to not be coerced to change your
faith, to engage in missionary activity, such as for Christians.
Also, the freedom to not have faith. That is all within the bounds
of religious freedom.
f T: In our own country we have the situation of Quebec and the
proposed Charter of Values, which would restrict the freedom of
employees of the State wearing symbols of their religion. That
would strike some as not being in line with religious freedom.
AB: I think it’s important for your readers to know our office
focuses exclusively on religious freedom overseas.
We’re talking about places where they are being tortured,
imprisoned, killed. It’s not my office’s role to comment on the
situation in Quebec. There are a number of people in the Government of Canada who have spoken out regarding the Charter
of Values. It’s proper that other parts of the government should
address that conversation.
We are able to advance religious freedom overseas as Canadians because we have religious freedom in Canada.
The courts, legislatures, Parliament and individual citizens
uphold religious freedom in our country. It’s the very first freedom enumerated in section two of the Charter.
It’s very clearly established in the Canadian context. We’re
blessed to have that freedom, and given that we have it, it behooves us to understand what it means, to champion it and to
champion it abroad.
f T: How does an ordinary Canadian citizen champion religious
AB: Make sure you are well informed. How is religious freedom
understood universally? Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of
“We’re talking about places
where [people] are