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Key immigration role urged for new religious-freedom ambassador

Men light candles during a candlelight vigil in commemoration of assassinated Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, in Lahore March 5, 2011.

© Mohsin Raza / Reuters/REUTERS

An evangelical Christian leader wants the federal government's new ambassador for religious freedom to play a central role in screening refugees and immigrants fleeing religious persecution.

Nearly two years after promising to name Canada's first ambassador for religious freedom, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to make the long-delayed announcement Tuesday at a Toronto-area mosque and community centre.

A key part of the ambassador's job should be to help formulate immigration policy, argued Don Hutchinson, vice-president and legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

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"It's very important for us as a nation to have an understanding of religion and the communities where we are establishing relationships [in order] to accept refugees and other immigrants," explained Mr. Hutchinson, who advised the government on the creation of an office of religious freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

"The office can identify common standards of assessment."

Ottawa's pledge was inspired by the 2011 assassination of Pakistani Christian lawmaker Shahbaz Bhatti, who had been pushing Ottawa to prod the Pakistani government into better protecting its religious minorities.

But Ottawa has had trouble filling the post. As many as three prospective candidates reportedly turned down the job.

Religious groups in Canada have long complained that federal officials have not put a high enough priority on what they say is worsening religious persecution.

Critics warn, however, that shining a spotlight on religious communities may distract attention from other human-rights abuses, particularly if the new ambassador becomes overly focused on any particular groups.

It also raises the question about the plight of atheists and other religious skeptics who also suffer persecution or discrimination in many parts of the world, according to a recent report by the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union. The report pointed out that "unbelievers" face the threat of execution in at least seven mainly Muslim countries.

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While studies show Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, Canada's ambassador need not necessarily be a Christian, Mr. Hutchinson argued.

"There is an identifiable group of us who engage on the question of religious freedom internationally," he pointed out. "The key is to have someone who is respected in that community."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the danger of putting a heightened focus on religious persecution is that it may exclude human-rights abuses against women, children or ethnic groups. "These are all important, and one shouldn't be dominant over the others in terms of being supported," he said.

MP Joyce Murray, who is running for the Liberal leadership, urged Ottawa to abort the religious freedom office in favour of a renewed commitment to democracy-building in Canada's foreign policy based on the principles enshrined in the Charter of Rights.

"It's been difficult to find someone to head the office because it's a quagmire," she said. "There are so many conflicting dynamics. It was more of an ideological announcement in the last election to attract votes."

Mr. Harper has invited representatives of a diverse array of religious groups to an event Tuesday at the Aiwan Tahir Community Centre and Ahmadiyya Muslim Mosque in Maple, Ont. Also slated to be there are Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, whose department will house the new office, will be in Panama Tuesday as part of a Latin American trip.

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A spokesman for Mr. Baird would not confirm whether the new ambassador would be named at the event.

But Rick Roth said "the office of religious freedom is a priority for our government and is a part of our principled foreign policy."

Speaking last October, Mr. Baird said the new ambassador would be named in short order.

"This office will signal to the world that Canada attaches great importance to religious freedom, and we will speak out when we see persecution of religious minorities," he said at the time. "We will give voice to the voiceless."

The government has set aside a budget of $5-million a year for the office.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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