TORONTO: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday highlighted the persecution of minorities in Pakistan and China while announcing the setting up of the Office of Religious Freedom.
The office, which will serve as a watchdog on religious rights in Canada and abroad, will be part of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It is no coincident that the prime minister chose an Ahmadiyya mosque in Vaughan, north of Toronto, to announce the new body as the Ahmadiyyas are the most persecuted minority in Pakistan where they were outlawed as non-Muslim by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974.
Highlighting the prosecution of the Ahmadiyya, Hindu, Sikh and even Shia communities in Pakistan and Tibetans, Falun Gong and others in China, the prime minister in his address to the gathering of various religious and ethnic groups said violations of religious freedom are widespread, and they are increasing.
“In Pakistan, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shiites Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus are vulnerable to persecution and violence,’’ he said.
“In China, Christians who worship outside government-approved boundaries are driven underground and their leaders are arrested and detained while Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners are subjected to repression and intimidation.’’
He also singled out Iran where “Bahá’ís and Christians face harassment, imprisonment, and, in some cases, death.’’
But the Canadian prime minister devoted a considerable part of his speech to the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, in 2011.
“I am privileged, in the course of my service as Prime Minister, to encounter many, extraordinary individuals and, from time to time, even among all of these extraordinary people, someone is exceptional. One such person I met in my office on Parliament Hill in 2011. He was the Minister of Minorities of Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti.’’
Harper said Bhatti fought for the rights of fellow Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadi Muslims, and all other minorities despite a constant threat to his life from Islamic hardliners.
“Shahbaz and I discussed the threats faced by religious minorities, and the need for Canada to do more. Only three weeks later, while traveling to work in Islamabad, Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated. Those of us who met him, and certainly his family and friends, will continue to mourn his loss.’’
But unlike Shahbaz Bhatti, the prime minister said, most men and women who are persecuted for their faith are not known. “But to them we say, Canada will not forget you. When you are silenced, we will speak out. We will use our freedom to plead for yours. And, we will not rest until the day you can exercise, fully and without fear, your birthright as members of the human family.’’
Andrew Bennett, a 40-year-old Ukrainian Catholic, will be the first ambassador of the Office of Religious Freedom.
The prime minister said Bennett will monitor religious freedom around the world.
“He will promote it as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy,’‘ Harper said.