The Inside Agenda Blog

Reactions to the Office of Religious Freedom

by Mary Taws Monday January 23, 2012

I was on my subway ride to work a few weeks back. It was one of those mornings where the train's passengers are packed like sardines, and looking at their feet to avoid awkward eye contact. Because we were in such close proximity, I found myself reading a newspaper over the shoulder of the woman in front of me. She noticed me reading the sidebar article and said, "Doesn't that just piss you off?"

I had been reading the article about homemade salad dressing.

"Vinaigrette-based dressings?" I asked her.

She pointed out the article below, detailing the fulfillment of one of Prime Minister Harper's 2011 election campaign promises: the federal government would be rolling out their proposed Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs in the new year.

The office would involve promoting religious freedom in countries around the world, monitoring religious persecution, and looking for ways to improve the security of faith-based groups.

Her reaction made considerably more sense now, but I was still curious as to why it elicited such exasperation.

"Why does it piss you off?" I asked.

She paused and looked at me as if the answer was obvious, then said, "Don't we have enough problems right here?"

My subway encounter was similar to the subsequent phone conversations I had about the new office. Some wondered why the focus was on this particular freedom. Others wondered if we would better serve global religious tolerance by providing an example. Below I've compiled some of the Twitter responses I received during preliminary research for tonight's program.

But each conversation I had about the new office  -- no matter what the interviewee's faith -- was similar; everyone I spoke to agreed that religious freedom has never been more important to closely monitor.

One of our guests tonight, Brian Grim, is a senior researcher for Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. He spends his time observing religious persecution around the world. And he points to what he sees going on across the globe every day to explain why religious freedom has never been more important to protect.

In Grim's most recent report, "Rising Restrictions on Religion," he provides graphics to illustrate how government restrictions and social hostilities threaten religious freedom in many countries. The following is one such graphic.

Among the world’s most populous countries, government restrictions or social hostilities substantially increased in eight countries – China, Egypt, France, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand,
Vietnam, and the United Kingdom – and did not substantially decrease in any.

Grim is based out of Washington, D.C. and has observed the American effort to improve global religious tolerance. In fact, under the Clinton administration, the U.S. Department of State opened a similar office. Tonight, Grim will join a panel of Canadian experts to discuss what the Canadian approach to monitoring religious freedom should look like.

Photo Credit: Brian J. Grim "Rising Restrictions on Religion," Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

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