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Canada Oct. 3, 2018

Religious freedom at risk in Canada, forum told

By Deborah Gyapong

Father Raymond de Souza, editor of Convivium.ca, and Ray Pennings, vice president of Cardus, at the 7th annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom Oct. 1. (Deborah Gyapong photo)

OTTAWA – Experts warned religious freedom is at risk in Canada as it is no longer seen as a fundamental right but something that can be trumped by vague “charter values” and partisan politics.

The seventh annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom hosted by Conservative MP David Anderson, the party’s critic for human rights and religious freedom, assembled a panel examining the state of religious freedom in the light of recent court decisions and polling on attitudes towards religion.

Father Raymond de Souza, a priest of the Kingston archdiocese and columnist and editor in chief of Convivium.ca, said he’s concerned about a “shift in the recognition of religious freedom from a fundamental freedom to a partisan position.”

In the courts, religious freedom and other section 2a rights in the charter are coming in conflict with rights perceived to be more central, such as equality rights, and when it does “it is diminished.”

“Fundamental freedoms are found not to be so fundamental,” Father de Souza said at the Oct. 1 forum. He called the anxiety “warranted.”

The abolishing of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom made international religious freedom seem like a partisan position, he said.

The Canada Summer Jobs attestation was based on a partisan interpretation of the charter, one that had little to do with the document itself or any court decision, he said. “The charter itself is coming a partisan position.”

“In this case, a government is saying a particular interpretation of the charter now becomes the governing standard,” he said. “If a new government comes in, it can say it has a new charter interpretation.”

He pointed to the possible danger when one side prevails and the other side loses. “That’s all contrary to religious freedom as a fundamental freedom.”

The Canada Summer Jobs pro-abortion attestation, “a type of ideological test” is “calling into question the state’s neutrality” on religious freedom, warned David Guretzki, executive vice president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Guretzki asked if religious organizations should spend all their energy trying to influence the state to stay neutral on religion, or strategize for a future where such neutrality no longer exists. He recommended they do both. He also urged vigilance of encroachment of religious freedom against any religious community, even those not their own. “Erosion of religious freedom and loss of neutrality has to be monitored across the board, here and abroad,” he said. “Religious freedom in Canada is meaningless” unless it is “for all or it’s an empty concept.”

Religious communities also have to model to Canadian society that public disagreement is possible without “partisan divisiveness” now on display, Guretzki said.

Imam Luqman Ahmed, of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’ at Canada, praised the way Canada has welcomed members of his community who have been persecuted, especially in Pakistan, often by Muslims with a different interpretation of the faith. He urged government not to interfere with religious communities unless harmful or destructive practices such as female-genital mutilation, forced marriage and hate mongering are involved.

“Religious freedom should never become a breeding ground for spreading hatred, or for harmful practices to take hold in our country,” Ahmed said.

Government should not be “nannying” religious communities by protecting them from outside criticism, but should ensure each community is treated equally, said Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Facing Tomorrow. She warned against Motion M-103, the so-called Islamophobia motion that gives Islam a special status. “Muslims cry Islamophobia and run to the government,” she said, noting that many other groups, starting with Jews, experience a much higher level of hate crimes than Muslims.

Raza said each community should police itself for evidence of intolerance and hatred, with the laws against hate speech as a framework. But religion, which is an idea not a race, should be open to criticism, and religious communities must defend charter protections such as freedom of speech and expression.

Along with intra-faith dialogue, Raza urged interfaith dialogue that is honest and “not just the fluffy stuff like my samosas, your pierogis and sandwiches,” she said.

Ray Pennings, executive vice president of Cardus, offered a glimpse at some of the scientific surveys Cardus has been commissioning to get a picture of attitudes towards religious faith in Canada.

“Eighty-six per cent of Canadians tell us they have prayed in the last month,” Pennings said. “Not that many people believe in God, so we’re not sure who they are praying to.”

Results show about 20 per cent of Canadians are non-believers, 30 per cent are spiritually uncertain, 30 per cent are privately faithful and another 20 per cent are religiously committed.

The religiously committed have by far the highest level of volunteering and give the most to charity, he said. The religious uncommitted are by far the most intolerant of other groups.

Religious communities have not done a good job of communicating the benefits they provide for society, Pennings said, noting the definition of secularism is changing from a kind of neutrality to a “proselytizing ideology.”

Canadians like the benefits of religion — the love of neighbour — without the beliefs in God that motivate the love of neighbour, he said. The non-believer side is “growing in confidence and in the rightness of their cause.”