Mr. Chair, Vice-Chairs, and distinguished members of the committee, it's a true honour to have the opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development to speak about the work that I have been doing as Canada's first ambassador for religious freedom.
I'll begin by giving a bit of a background on the state of religious freedom in the world today, to provide context for the work in which my team and I are involved. I will then speak to the office of religious freedom's mandate, and how we are using policy, advocacy, and programming to meet the office's objectives.
By way of background, worldwide there is a deteriorating trend in the state of freedom of religion. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religion rose from 37% in the year ending in mid-2010, to 40% in 2011, a five-year high. Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, more than 5.1 billion people in the world, roughly 74% of the global population, were living in countries with high government restrictions on religion, or high social hostilities involving religion, the brunt of which fell on smaller religious communities.
The creation of the office of religious freedom comes at a particularly important time. Thankfully, the office can rely on the cooperation of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other like-minded countries, as well as solid legal principles that are found in both Canadian and international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines in article 18 the right of every person to freedom of religion. Numerous other human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also established this individual right within an international human rights framework.
I will now speak more concretely about the office and its work.
The mandate of the office has three broad components: first, defend religious communities and monitor religious freedom through country strategies and analysis, interventions in support of communities at risk, and strengthening the capacity to monitor and promote religious freedom through specialized training; second, promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy through domestic advocacy and outreach, international advocacy and outreach, and whole-of-government coordination; and third, advance policies and programs that support religious freedom and promote pluralism through policies that support the goals of the office, effective programming, and partnership with like-minded governments and international organizations.
I should add that I spoke about the international framework for what we're doing, but it also goes without saying that the Canadian Constitution also enshrines freedom of conscience and religion as the first fundamental freedom entrenched in section 2(a) of the 1982 Constitution Act.
Since my appointment on February 19, 2013, I have undertaken broad outreach and spoken publicly, both domestically and abroad, with literally hundreds of groups to raise awareness of the importance of religious freedom and to call attention to its violation internationally. At a conference on anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe in Budapest in October of last year, I drew attention to the legislation in certain countries that limits the rights of some people to fully practise their faith. We will continue to use every opportunity to raise Canada's concerns on violations of religious freedom. The office has a dynamic communications plan that will ensure that Canada's position remains in the spotlight on these important issues, either by me or by the foreign minister. We will continue to support resolutions that protect religious freedom at a variety of multilateral forums, including through formal statements in these bodies on emerging events and incidences of religious persecution.
As I mentioned earlier in conjunction with the advocacy program, I continue to engage in extensive domestic and international outreach to build a solid network of contacts to contribute to policy development and identify areas of potential collaboration.
This engagement includes the foreign diplomatic community in Ottawa, Canadian faith communities, civil society groups, and bilateral and multilateral interlocutors abroad. In mid-October 2013, the office also launched a seminar series, the Religious Freedom Forum, for government officials and various interlocutors to discuss themes of importance regarding the protection and promotion of religious freedom. We were pleased to welcome former British prime minister, Tony Blair, at our first seminar here in Ottawa.
The importance of this outreach is to assure Canadians that we hear their views on the plight or discrimination of their fellow citizens. It is also important for my office to engage with civil society and community groups who can partner with my office in different fashions. This outreach has proved extremely useful and I will continue to make efforts to speak to Canadians about the work of the office.
The office, in collaboration with our network of embassies and high commissions abroad, draws on leading research from key partners such as the Pew Forum, which I referenced earlier, to inform our policy, programming, and advocacy approach to combat religious freedom violations around the world. The office and colleagues at the department produce internal reports on particularly troubling situations such as the ongoing turmoil in Egypt and sectarian conflict in the Middle East more broadly. We are also in the process of developing country strategies for countries of concern.
In support of the advocacy, analysis, and reporting functions of the office and to raise awareness and understanding across Canada's foreign service, the office has been engaged in a series of briefing sessions for outgoing officers and heads of mission regarding the importance of promoting and defending religious freedom. Furthermore, a module of specialized training on religious freedom is being developed for Canadian diplomats. This will include training on related issues and on country-specific themes.
I'd like to speak a bit about our programming activities. Most of the funding allocated to the office—$4.25 million per year—is dedicated to programming activities in support of the office's objectives. The office manages the funding for the delivery of effective targeted programming in support of its mandate. Programming includes providing funding directly to selected civil society partners, especially in countries where there are serious religious cleavages and where government is supportive of constructive solutions to promote religious freedom. Funding can also be used to assist groups in critical situations or be granted to human rights defenders working on behalf of persecuted groups.
Programming also supports interfaith dialogue, engages governments on religious tolerance, and provides funding for the preparation and dissemination of documentation in support of religious freedom in targeted countries.
In August of last year, announced the first three religious freedom projects. In Nigeria we are funding a two-year and roughly $553,000 project to promote interfaith dialogue and conflict mediation between different communities, specifically Christian and Muslim communities. With the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, we are launching a three-year project worth just over $670,000 with the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to promote international standards on freedom of religion, focusing on recognition of religious or belief communities in eastern Europe, central Asia, and the south Caucasus. In Indonesia we are launching a $260,000 project with the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace to produce annual reports on freedom of religion and belief, increase understanding by religious communities of their constitutional rights, provide advocacy and networking tools to religious communities, and provide training for teachers on religious tolerance and pluralism.
I was asked by the committee to speak specifically to the situation in Syria, which I'm happy to do. The situation in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe and the source of countless human rights violations including, but certainly not limited to, religious freedom. Approximately 130,000 people have been killed, over one third of whom were civilians, 6.5 million are internally displaced, and 2.4 million Syrians have fled as refugees to countries in the region. These figures continue to rise on a daily basis due to the vicious and increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict.
Regarding violations of religious freedom, religious divides in Syria have been manifested in a litany of attacks and counterattacks on religious communities and holy sites.
In January of this year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that since the outbreak of the war over 1,000 mosques and 90 Christian churches, monasteries, shrines, and buildings around the country have been destroyed, with many more vandalized. In addition, both the regime and extremist elements of the opposition have targeted religious leaders including Sunni clerics who support the opposition as well as Christian leaders and worshippers. For example, two senior clerics, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi and the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo Yohanna Ibrahim, remain missing after being kidnapped by rebels in April of last year.
Canada continues to believe that the only way to end the crisis in Syria is through a Syrian-led political transition leading to the emergence of a free, democratic, and pluralist Syria. In Minister Baird's speech before the delegations at the Geneva II peace conference on Syria he made reference to building the country “that Syria's people—whatever their religion, sect, or ethnicity—deserve”. That has been Canada's position from the beginning.
A future Syria must have a place for all Syrians regardless of faith or ethnicity. Canada has been amongst the strongest advocates for pressuring the opposition to ensure they become more representative of Syria's diverse fabric as well as renounce the use of terrorism and distance themselves from these entities. Meanwhile Canada has also led the effort to help those fleeing Assad's violence and to date has committed over $630 million in humanitarian development and security assistance in response to the Syria crisis.
In 2013 I spoke to religious freedom issues in Syria quite publicly. On April 25 I condemned the abduction of the two Christian archbishops from Aleppo, as previously mentioned, and demanded their immediate release. On July 1 Minister Baird stated that Canada was appalled by reports of the killing of Roman Catholic priest Father François Murad, a Franciscan friar, and others near Gassanieh in northern Syria.
On September 9 the minister and I jointly condemned the forced conversion of Christians to Islam in the village of Maaloula near Damascus by al-Qaeda-linked rebels. On December 5 I called for the release of 12 nuns who had been reportedly abducted in Maaloula. I should say that I remain in regular contact with several bishops and clergy here in the Canadian Antiochian Orthodox community and Syriac Orthodox community about these issues facing Syria.
My office and the Government of Canada more broadly will continue to shine the international spotlight on violations of freedom of religion in Syria through advocacy efforts and other targeted action in concert with strategic partners whenever possible.
In closing, I hope that these brief remarks have given you an overview of the wide range of activities that the office is engaged in. Modestly speaking, though my team and I are proud of the work that we have done so far, the negative trends of recent years require a focused and sustained response from countries like Canada, which place great importance on the defence of religious freedom.
Mr. Chair, in closing I would just end with a brief story on how this office can be an effective tool for religious freedom. Last year we were advised by our high commission in Colombo of the arrest of Mr. Azad Sally, a prominent Muslim human rights activist who has spoken out in Sri Lanka against the violations of religious freedom meted out against the Muslim community in that country. He was arrested essentially under their protection against terrorism act, which has been used for all sorts of spurious investigations and prosecutions. We spoke out and demanded his immediate release. He was not being given due access to legal counsel or his family. We also démarchedthe Sri Lankan high commissioner here in Ottawa.
Mr. Sally was subsequently released a number of weeks later. His first stop upon his release was to our high commission in Colombo to thank Canada for speaking out.
Our primary objective is to position Canada as a global leader in promoting and protecting freedom of religion. Given the enormity of the task ahead for all those engaged in the fight against religious persecution and intolerance, if we are to have a measurable impact, continued work with Canadian and international partners is essential for the fulfilment of our mandate.
Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to present before the committee. I look forward to the committee's questions.
I'd like to thank the member for the question. I'll take it in two parts.
First, maybe engaging the advocacy role and engaging with the diaspora, and then secondly, the programming side. I've had a chance from virtually the beginning of the mandate last February and March to meet regularly with different Pakistani groups, whether we're speaking about the Ahmadiyya Muslim community—and I've met them on numerous occasions, not only here in Ottawa, in Toronto, and out in Delta, B.C., where they have a new mosque, but also in London, U.K., when I was there at the invitation of the head of the community.
I've also had a chance to engage the different Pakistani Christian groups that are well represented in different parts of the country, and also the Shia Muslim community. I've had a chance to engage with a number of their imams over the past number of months.
Again, Pakistan is a very complex situation because of the diversity of religious communities there, all of which face targeting, whether we're speaking about the blasphemy laws, the very restrictive laws against Ahmadiyya Muslims. It's interesting to note that the prosecutions under the blasphemy laws disproportionately target Sunni Muslims because the blasphemy laws are misapplied. Most of the time they're used to address, for example, property or family disputes. They're very problematic and we're looking at ways we can address the challenge of the blasphemy laws through our programming and by engaging the Pakistani authorities.
This is a point that has come up regularly in my interactions with the different Pakistani communities here in Canada that represent different faith communities, the whole question of curriculum and how the national curriculum demonizes or denigrates different communities. How can we address that? Through curriculum development, can we work again with the Pakistani government?
Pakistan is one of our principal countries of focus. We believe it's a country where we can have a multi-level form of engagement with government, faith communities, civil society, NGOs, again, working with like-minded countries; and that's not the case in all the countries we're dealing with. For example, I'm under no illusions that we can have a deep dialogue with Saudi Arabia or Iran, but I think Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia are countries that we can work closely with.
I had a chance in London in July of last year to engage in a public dialogue with Dr. Paul Bhatti who effectively succeeded his brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, as the Minister of National Harmony and Minority Affairs in Pakistan. He, unfortunately, was defeated in the last election. He sought a seat in the Pakistani Parliament. But he's now gone on to establish a new institute based, I believe, in Islamabad, that is hoping to continue the work of facilitating inter-religious dialogue within Pakistan. He and I continue to have close contacts.
I have a very good relationship with the high commissioner here in Ottawa and also with the consul general in Toronto who, very courageously, this Christmas had a Christmas celebration at the consulate general in Toronto, the first of its kind.
Again, we think we can have a fairly deep level of engagement within Pakistani society, and yes, we are looking at projects in that country.
I was in Ukraine just over two weeks ago for a 48-hour period. In the midst of the political violence that was ongoing, the focus of the trip was to speak out against the intimidation that has been directed specifically against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This is a church that through much of the second half of the 20th century was one of the largest “illegal” religious organizations in the world.
In a number of cases the government has been intimidating the church. Specifically the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, the ministry that is responsible for church-state relations, sent a letter to Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, that told him the church needed to cease and desist from being present on the square in Kiev in a pastoral fashion ministering to people, because they were violating articles 16 and 21 of the law that regulates church-state relations. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the only church that received such a letter in which the government threatened to delist the church—to make it, in other words, an illegal organization within the country.
On the square, reports came to us that the Berkut, the security services, were asking NGO representatives and different clergy about why they were there and what their purpose was. But when it came to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy, they were actually intimidating them and threatening them.
We're also concerned, and I issued a statement on this prior to Christmas, about the intimidation directed toward Ukrainian Catholic University. This has been a long-running type of intimidation. Security services were threatening faculty and staff who were going to Kiev to participate in peaceful protests with phone calls in the middle of the night and these types of Soviet-style tactics.
We have committed to being very vigilant in ensuring that this type of intimidation and persecution of one particular church neither continues nor spreads to other faith communities in Ukraine.
Just around the time I was there, perhaps a couple of days before, two Jews were attacked in Kiev. That's another issue we're focusing on. A very good initiative is the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, actually led by two Canadians, that has brought together Christian leaders in Ukraine, Jewish leaders, and also some Muslim leaders around advancing that dialogue between Christians and Jews. That's something else we're monitoring.
The situation there is very concerning, especially given the influence of certain external actors.
Mr. Chair, I'm not aware of the specific point that the member is raising. I'm not sure what sorts of discussions are taking place.
In Ukraine, there are four eastern Christian jurisdictions, the largest of which is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate, so it's under the Moscow Patriarchate. They're dominant in the eastern part of the country. Then you have the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kyivan Patriarchate, which would be the second-largest, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Without getting into complex matters of ecclesiology and jurisdictional competition, there's one thing that I can advise committee members of, which is that in this current situation facing Ukraine over the last number of months, the churches have been coordinating and cooperating quite well together, with perhaps the exception of the Moscow Patriarchate. They have been working in a dialogue, which hasn't always been there, to advance, again, the importance of democracy and rule of law within Ukraine, and they have been facilitating dialogue between different groups. I think there's always been a great degree of legitimacy given to the churches in Ukraine, and I think the current situation where they have been playing this role has—from what I can see—even enhanced this.
When I was there, I had a chance to meet with Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kyivan Patriarchate, and some other Greek Catholic bishops. The influence of Moscow, through the Moscow Patriarchate church, is an issue that does come up in these discussions. The current Moscow Patriarchate Metropolitan in Kiev, Metropolitan Volodymyr, is very ill, and has been for some time, with very advanced Parkinson's. There is some concern amongst some quarters that once he is no longer able to serve his Metropolitan upon his death or otherwise, Moscow will take a decision to appoint a more hardline Metropolitan in Kiev, which could complicate the situation.
There is some concern. In the past, there has been some favouritism shown by the government toward the Moscow Patriarchate. President Yanukovych, early on in his presidency, only attended Moscow Patriarchate liturgies. Patriarch Filaret of the Kyivan Patriarchate indicated to me that they have now had a bit of a rapprochement—that the president has been to Kyivan Patriarchate churches—but there is not that same openness from the government towards the Autocephalous Orthodox Church and certainly not towards the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
In the case of Burma, as the committee will be aware, we now have a mission in Burma. As they've been getting themselves set up, we've been trying to engage them on opportunities to program in the country.
Certainly we're concerned about the deteriorating situation in the country with regard to different minorities, particularly the conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists and also the conflict with Christians, particularly Chin and Karen Christians. The added challenge in the case of the Rohingya Muslims is the ethnic dimension as well. They're generally not accorded the status of even being Burmese. That factor comes into play there as it does in many countries where you have ethno-religious tensions that play out.
We've had a chance to engage a number of the different communities here in Canada—the Chin community, the Rohingya community—and again, working with our mission now in Burma, we're looking to find some way where we can get on the ground. I think this is a really important time in the history of Burma. Obviously it's a period of democratic transition. It's a period when you can begin to look at constitutional documents and other types of documents that are put into place that can afford a degree of religious freedom. But then you have to ask, “Okay, then—how do you actually act on these documents?”
It's early days, and we've been reaching out on a regular basis to try to find good partners who can engage with us on this. It's a bit tough, to be very honest. There are not a lot of different groups engaged yet on this particular issue that have the track record that we feel confidence in working with, but we continue to reach out.
I had a chance to meet with a group of Burmese parliamentarians last year. We had a very fruitful hour-and-a-half to two-hour meeting. They wanted to know how we in Canada understood religious freedom. We got into some very different questions, especially on marriage rights.
I think the fact that we now have a mission on the ground will help us immensely. As of yet, we don't have any projects that we're launching there, but I'm looking for continued engagement.
On the question of first nations religion, I'll be very honest with the member: I've been struggling with how to engage on this, particularly when it comes to, for example, the Americas and issues of indigenous religious rights in certain parts of South America or Central America.
I guess what I would say in response is that I would welcome groups that the member might be aware of, or that other members might be aware of, that I could reach out to on this question. I do think it is an important question. The religious freedom aspect gets tied up with land claim issues, with socio-economic difficulties, so it's a very complex issue. I think Canada, given our experience, might be able to assist some of these countries in that regard.
As I believe I mentioned to the member when we had an opportunity to chat before, we do have an interdepartmental coordinating committee. We'll be meeting fairly soon for another meeting, and I would like to involve some of our colleagues from the aboriginal and northern affairs department in that conversation.
Mr. Chair, I thank the member for his question. I'll take the last part first, if I may.
My career has been as a civil servant, and so with the exception of one year when I took time out to return to my theological studies, I've been a civil servant in various departments within the government. In taking up this position, I found fairly early on within the department that I was very well received, I think because of my status as a civil servant. Obviously, I'm on leave now from the civil service to take up the GIC appointment. Certainly there has been strong political support for the work we're doing, but I've also found from the beginning, even if what we were planning on doing and what our role would be might not have been entirely clear, that there has been very strong support from colleagues within the foreign service and within the department here in Ottawa.
Much of my work has involved raising awareness and talking about why we're doing this and why it fits in squarely with Canada's human rights framework. I've always emphasized that this is what Canada does. We speak out on these issues of fundamental human rights. This advancing of freedom of religion in no way denigrates from the other types of rights we're advancing, because they all fit together. No one human right can stand on its own. I think freedom of religion dovetails very nicely with freedom of expression, freedom of association, gender equality, and all of these different issues. So in presenting our work in that broader context, I think my colleagues said , “Okay. We get it. We see where you're going”. I've had very good support, and I don't feel limited in any way in terms of the work we're doing.
I thank the member again for his thoughts on engaging these particular reviews and reports that hold countries to account for how they're dealing with particular situations including the treatment of aboriginal communities, first nations communities.
One avenue we have been considering, which we hope to make effective use of, is the universal periodic reviews that countries are held to. We hope to use that UN avenue as a way of saying, “Here are issues of religious freedom that perhaps dovetail with aboriginal issues, gender equality issues, and the issue of early and forced child marriage, all of which we need to address. This is in the universal periodic review of your country. How can we engage with you in a dialogue to address these deficiencies and, in many cases, the persecution of different groups?”
I thank the member for that question. Our team will take him up on his advice.