– in Maple, Ontario –
This week, in the aptly named Maple, part of the sprawling suburbs in the northern Greater Toronto Area, the prime minister came to announce the establishment of the new Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), along with its first ambassador, Dr. Andrew Bennett.
Another story was evident in Maple too, a contrast between an old Canada passing away, and a new Canada emerging.
As to the ORF itself, promised in the 2011 federal election campaign, it was a day of pride. I was proud to be Canadian, to hear the prime minister speak clearly in the name of those who are daily harassed, assaulted, imprisoned and killed for their faith in God.
Stephen Harper was not reticent, identifying by name both persecuting regimes and those groups persecuted. He was willing above all to call out Beijing, the greatest systematic violator of human rights on the planet.
We learned after the Cold War that the enslaved peoples behind the Iron Curtain were in fact heartened by those Western leaders bold enough to call evil by its name. One trusts that the words in Maple may strengthen those who even now face being silenced, enslaved or slaughtered.
The prime minister also explained why it is that religious liberty is the first liberty — in the Magna Carta, in the American Bill of Rights, and yes, in our Charter of Rights of Freedoms. If a person is not free before God, is not free in his conscience, then there is no basis for his freedom before the state, and his property and other rights are of little avail. The state that claims the right to interpose itself between man and God is by definition a totalitarian state, even if it should be a softer sort of totalitarianism, at least at first.
Ten days ago, I invited Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, to speak about religious liberty in Toronto and in Kingston, Ont. The fearless champion of human rights made the point vividly — a caged bird may be in a larger or smaller cage, but the salient fact remains that it is caged. The troubling reality is that the cages are constricting the world over, often with lethal results.
Religion is playing an increasingly important role in foreign affairs, and the defence of religious liberty will be a critical means for Canada to promote both pluralism and democracy abroad. More urgently, not a month goes by without a massacre of religious believers solely for that reason — sometimes even desecrating houses of worship themselves.
In the face of that, “Canada will not be silent” said the prime minister. Quite right.
A discordant note was sounded by the national media present in Maple, who framed their questions as if this were a clever political trick by the federal government, slipping a little Christian proselytism by the Ahmadiyya Muslims who hosted the event with great pride and enthusiasm.
A particularly bizarre media preoccupation was what the ORF would do for atheists. It is an interesting intellectual exercise — like how the minister of sport might serve the aggressively sedentary — but rather beside the point when actual mosques are bombed, or when Christians have to hold midnight Mass in the daytime where it is too dangerous to go to Mass after dark. People are being killed for their faith, Canada’s government is sounding the alarm, and the national media is preoccupied with questions only relevant in the highly secular circles that consider religious liberty akin to the freedom to choose one hobby over another.
What was clear in Maple — now home to some 10,000 Ahmadiyya Muslims, is that a new Toronto north of the old city is emerging.
The Ahmadiyya built their mosque here in the 1980s, and their community centre, where the announcement was held, later. Being good Canadians, they applied and obtained government grants for the construction. Then their spiritual leader told them that in Canada, in gratitude for the freedom they enjoy to practise their faith, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community does not take, but give. So they gave the money back.
Much of the new Maple — which features strong immigrant communities fiercely proud of being Canadian, united by religious practice, and aware of the world beyond the narrow preoccupations of Canadian politics — is a bit alien to the reporters who drove north for the announcement. Here in Maple, it makes sense that our diplomats know something about religion in the world, and that Canada should raise its voice in defence of the first liberty.
The prime minister came to Maple to make a foreign policy announcement. The reaction of some was that it was a foreign country. It’s not. It’s the new Canada, and the best part of it.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands with Dr. Andrew Bennett (right) and Muslim cleric Lai Khan Malik after naming Bennett ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom in Maple, Ont., north of Toronto.