WASHINGTON-Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, part of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, seems to have grasped the trend that religious freedom is in a perilous state around the world, and that persecution has become particularly crushing for Christian minorities.
At a dinner Thursday at Canada's sleek limestone embassy, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Baird reeled off to me the worst sufferers of religious freedom abuses: "Coptic Christians … the Christian community in Nigeria … the Baha'is in Iran … previously, the Kurds in Iraq."
That evening, in his speech to ambassadors and religious freedom advocates, Baird also mentioned the 2011 assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's only Christian Cabinet member.
In Iraq, he said, "Fundamental freedoms are the domain of the select few. And Christians are not always among the few. Al-Qaeda has driven out many Christians and other minorities." Canada's response, Baird said, would be to help resettle refugees from those areas. He mentioned abuses against people of other religions, too, but added, "Far too often those targeted are Christians."
Baird has pushed for the creation of an office for international religious freedom in Canada that parallels the U.S. State Department's office. The Canadian religious freedom office will, like the United States, work on reports through its embassies around the world and, like the United States, combat the "defamation of religion" resolutions in the United Nations. But Canada, at least, has more freedom to criticize foreign governments than the ever-cautious U.S. State Department, and Baird hinted that America's neighbor to the north would be noisier.
"Canada is no longer a country that simply goes along to get along in its foreign policy," he said. "We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient, or expedient."
The same day Baird gave his speech, the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights reports, which focused on the cauldron in the Middle East. But unlike previous year's reports, these did not have a section on religious freedom and only made passing mention of the issue. Instead, the reports linked to the State Department's most recent, separate religious freedom report, which was published in September 2011.
In presenting the September report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East (see "Mounting concerns," Sept. 13, 2011), but she didn't mention religious freedom in presenting the human rights reports last week, except in passing.
"Men and women who want to speak, worship, associate, love the way they choose-we will defend their rights," Clinton said, alluding to the State Department's new emphasis on protecting gays, bisexuals, and transgender people.
Clinton said she doesn't expect the report, covering 199 countries, "to be reading material everywhere," but she hoped it would be a "tool." Indeed, those seeking asylum, for example, can use the reports in U.S. courts as evidence for their cause.
"This is the work that will continue administration after administration, secretary after secretary, because of its centrality to our foreign policy and national security," Clinton said.
Religious freedom has become a relatively bipartisan issue in the United States, but Canada's Baird has faced some criticism from liberals in his country who described it as a melding of church and state (see "Defend the persecuted," May 4). Still, he expects the office to open sometime this year.
"We can use Canada's voice and use our muscle-and sometimes both," Baird told me, as he buzzed around the Canadian Embassy's rooftop patio, meeting nonprofit advocates, staffers from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, as well as various ambassadors.
Earlier in the day, Baird met with various U.S. senators on the matter.
"We're pushing it at every opportunity we can as a key element of our foreign policy," he said.