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In a world of contending faiths

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Even though the Canadian religious freedom office might be fraught with some pitfalls, in my thinking it will be a good thing.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented Andrew Bennett as the first ambassador for Canada's Office of Religious Freedom, he was met with the expected criticisms. The office runs the risk of being too Christian-centric: Bennett is a Christian. A budget of $5 million is money better spent on the environment or elsewhere. The government didn't consult enough before creating the office. If Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, it has brought it on itself because of its proselytizing.

All of these criticisms have some merit.

The one with the least merit probably is the notion that the proselytizing character of Christianity somehow invalidates concern for Christians who might be suffering in places such as Nigeria or Egypt, or Myanmar or Kazakhstan. If one makes proselytizing the test, where does one stop? Surely we can recognize how much of the debate that goes on within any country is in fact a form of proselytizing.

Gwynne Dyer, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens -- and Winnipeg's own Arthur Schafer -- are all proselytizers who argue for positions with varying degrees of merit for which they want to gain adherents. That's not a bad thing; indeed, much of it is positive. Whatever our opinion about their beliefs, they should have the right to argue for their positions and not be punished for it. But neither should Christians or people of any other faith.

Yet, when a Christian school like Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., wanted to develop a teacher education program a few years ago, opposition from the B.C. College of Teachers forced them to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada before the way was cleared for them to actually do so.

Now, Trinity is facing the same kind of opposition with its plan to start a school of law. Even though the philosophy behind the plans for the school assumes a clear separation between church and state and recognizes that people of all faiths should have equal rights under the law, the Canadian Council of Law Deans wrote a strong letter to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada asking it to investigate whether "TWU's covenant is inconsistent with federal or provincial law."

The school's covenant, according to the letter, "clearly contemplates discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

This is to say the struggle for religious freedom is very much a Canadian issue, even though a Supreme Court ruling in 2001 said "religious freedom applies to religious post-secondary institutions in regard to requirements made to staff and students to adhere to the beliefs and practices of the religions concerned," wrote Don Hutchinson in a National Post column in January.

But it is also a worldwide issue. What complicates it is the reality that the two most active missionary faiths in the world are Christianity and Islam. Both actively proselytize and welcome converts. This is not likely to change. So the two must find ways of extending genuine mutuality to one another. This is tough for both, but, let's be honest, especially hard for Islam.

After Pope Benedict XVI gave his famous speech in Regensburg in which he criticized Islam for violence, he set in motion an exchange of meetings between Muslims and Catholics that continues to this day. These have been useful. Yet a great gulf persists.

Nothing could illustrate it better than the visit made by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with the Pope in the Vatican in 2007. In his country, Abdullah is known as the Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. He could visit the Pope in the Vatican but he could not issue a visa to Benedict for a return visit to Islam's holy sites.

Nor has he yet honoured the Pope's request for permission to build a church for Catholics in Arabia. Despite the presence of a million foreign workers who claim Christian faith, Saudi Arabia does not allow any sort of public places of Christian worship in the country.

One could name many areas of the world where the struggle for religious freedom is acute. Myanmar, despite moving toward real democratization, nonetheless has been conducting a campaign against its largely Christian Kachin ethnic people.

According to reports, more than 100,000 of these people have been displaced and as many as 200 villages destroyed. Another of Myanmar's people, the tribal Karen group, also Christian, have suffered similarly. Winnipeg has refugees from that conflict.

A few weeks ago, Younas Masih, a Christian in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, was shot after colleagues of his had been pressuring him to convert to Islam.

In a sense, the decision to make the announcement about Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom in an Ahmadiyya Mosque is ironic: Pakistan does not recognize the Muslim sect as true Muslims, even though they claim it.

Although on an official level the Organization of Islamic Co-operation has made statements speaking out against intolerance and incitement of hate for religious reasons, and called for cultural and religious diversity, Christians and persons of other faiths are often discriminated against in Muslim dominant countries. A 2010 article in Germany's Der Spiegel argued Islam's greatest internal struggle is a struggle for acceptance of diversity.

Even Mecca, which once had schools of four branches of Sunni Islam, now has only the school representing Wahhabism. A sign outside Mecca, Islam's holiest city, declares entrance to be forbidden for anyone of any other faith.

It would be dishonest to say the issues raised by an Office of Religious Freedom are not a struggle for people of all faiths. They are. Yet it is not simple coincidence the countries with the largest amount of personal freedom also happen to be the countries with a largely Christian history.

Christianity on the whole -- despite a long history in which its practice was quite the opposite -- is comfortable with a clear separation between church and state.

A 2010 Pew Forum survey asked more than 2,100 evangelical Protestant leaders from around the globe for their views about political involvement. More than eight out of 10 (84 per cent) thought that religious leaders should express their views on political matters, but by more than a three-to-one margin (74 per cent versus 21 per cent) the evangelical leaders said it was acceptable to them if their country's political leaders had a different religion than their own.

That, I would suggest, reflects the overwhelming majority of Canadians and provides encouragement to hope for good work from a Canadian Office of Religious Freedom.

Harold Jantz is a Christian

writer on religious affairs.

jantz@mymts.net

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2013 A8

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