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Church and state in Conservative Ottawa

By Evan Sotiropoulos      

Time will tell how the Conservatives stickhandle these sensitivities. One thing, though, is evident: a dialogue between church and state can yield benefits to society and is not indicative of one being beholden to the other.

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TORONTO—Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—seven simple words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence that forever changed a nation. These “unalienable rights” it should be remembered are endowed by a “Creator” according to that famous 1776 document.

Similarly, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms brought in by Pierre Elliott Trudeau states that Canada is “founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”

It was these two examples that Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney used as a springboard to address the more than 80 Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox clergymen who gathered to hear him at a private luncheon in Toronto last month.

As Kenney delivered his off-the-cuff introductory remarks, one could not help but see the enthusiasm he has for the religious vocation and for the need to protect all communities and individuals (not just Christians) persecuted because of their faith.

Religion—and its role in the political square—is a sensitive subject in this day and age, especially for the current federal government which has time and again been accused of being beholden to the religious right.

This claim persists despite the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown, in both word and deed, his unwillingness to open the debate on issues that matter to them (namely, abortion and same-sex marriage).

Yet listening to Kenney was to hear a politician speak authentically and whether one agreed with him or not, you knew where he stood on the issues discussed.

Alas, this attribute—authenticity—is often absent from our elected officials.

Kenney’s story concerning Shahbaz Bhatti, for example (the Christian Pakistani Cabinet member who was assassinated in March because he dared to criticized that country’s blasphemy laws), showed emotion seldom seen in the scripted world of Canadian politics.

During the meeting, the Minister reiterated Canada’s commitment to Iraqi refugees who face persecution and support of other communities, like Ahmadiyya Muslims, who are also under threat. 

Other subjects given consideration included Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the question of confiscated Armenian Churches in Turkey and the problems facing Christians in Kosovo.

Kenney’s address to church representatives at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis comes in the context of the soon-to-be established Office of Religious Freedom—one of the few policy issues from last year’s federal campaign still being debated.

The office is a potential sweet spot for Conservatives where good policy meets good politics.

They can promote values that play to their strength like democracy, human rights and the rule of law while at the same time cementing their relationship with ethnic communities that Kenney has worked hard to cultivate. (So hard, in fact, that Maclean’s named him the hardest working Parliamentarian in 2011.) 

On the other hand, however, by reorienting its foreign policy to protect religious minorities, the federal government leaves itself open to criticism that it is playing international favourites for domestic gain.

There have already been a number of stories that those being consulted on the Office of Religious Freedom are drawn from Judeo-Christian communities with both eastern religions and Islam largely excluded.

Time will tell how the Conservatives stickhandle these sensitivities. One thing, though, is evident: a dialogue between church and state can yield benefits to society and is not indicative of one being beholden to the other. 

Evan Sotiropoulos is a freelance political columnist.

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