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Ottawa weighs creating ambassador for religious freedom

Tory MP takes the microphone during mass at Coptic Christmas celebrations in Mississauga on Jan. 6, 2010.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

The Harper government is looking to attach some heft to an international religious freedom watchdog that it's installing within the Department of Foreign Affairs.

But it's still pondering how to build sufficient independence into the DNA of this new Office of Religious Freedom, a promise from the 2011 election campaign.

Sources said Bob Dechert, parliamentary seacretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, told a closed-door meeting of religious, ethnic and human-rights groups Monday that Ottawa would create an ambassador post to accompany the new office.

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Assigning an ambassador to the watchdog would give the office a higher profile and greater influence than it could otherwise achieve.

The Conservatives promised during the spring election that they'd create an Office of Religious Freedom inside the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

The office, which will have a $5-million annual budget, will promote and monitor religious freedom around the world.

Chris Day, director of communications for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, confirmed Ottawa is considering assigning an ambassadorship. He said no decision has been made.

"That's one of several options we're looking at," Mr. Day said. "When we have something more to announce, we will."

Mr. Dechert chaired private consultations with 100 people of various faiths and ethnicities Monday on setting up the office.

A major topic of discussion was how much freedom the Office of Religious Freedom would be granted, sources said. Would it be able to take a harder line than Canadian diplomats or the Harper government, for instance, on the conduct of foreign governments?

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Participants told the Tories they wanted the office to have the independence necessary to draw attention to violations of religious liberty.

But giving the office free rein could leave the Conservatives with political heartburn. Were the new office to harshly criticize the Chinese government's persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual sect, for instance, it might cause diplomatic problems for the Conservatives as they try to strengthen ties with Beijing.

Plus, the watchdog would have influence only if it had the implicit backing of the Canadian government. That means it couldn't be seen as too independent from Ottawa.

Canada's not alone in establishing a religious persecution monitor. In the United States, there's an ambassador for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, who's closely associated with the State Department. Mr. Baird consulted with her during a visit to Washington in August. The U.S. also has a more independent commission for international religious freedom.

The foreign affairs minister told the consultation exercise Monday there were related benefits to trumpeting religious freedom.

"Societies that protect religious freedom are more likely to protect all other fundamental freedoms," Mr. Baird said. "They are typically more stable and more prosperous societies."

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The religious freedom watchdog pledge was in part aimed at courting ethnic minority voters.

No victims of religious persecution were named in the Tory platform but Coptic Christians, frequently under attack in Egypt, are likely high on the list. They're also one of the groups that Mr. Dechert was wooing during the campaign in his riding.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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