WASHINGTON - Canada's foreign affairs minister was the keynote speaker Thursday at an event in the U.S. capital honouring religious freedom, forcefully defending his government's strong support of Israel while promoting its plans for an Office of Religious Freedom.
"We contend that modern anti-Semitism lives in the disproportionate criticism Israel receives, and the refusal to accept its right to exist," John Baird told the annual Religious Liberty Dinner.
"The world cannot take the words of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as mere rhetoric and risk appeasing these malicious actors in the same way the world appeased the Nazis .... Under our prime minister, and under this foreign minister, Canada will stand with the Jewish state and people as they struggle to protect their very right to exist."
The Religious Liberty Dinner is a big event in the U.S. capital, attracting VIPs, diplomats from around the world and top-level American lawmakers. Past keynote speakers have included senators John Kerry, John McCain and Hillary Clinton before she became U.S. secretary of state.
Baird was asked to speak at the dinner, organizers said, due to Canada's intention to open a religious freedom office.
But one of the dinner's key sponsors, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage and homosexuality, in opposition to Baird's outspoken support of gay rights around the world.
The minister has often assailed other nations for persecuting gays and lesbians. Just this week, he commended the government of Malawi for repealing laws that targeted homosexuals.
Baird didn't touch explicitly on those hot-button issues in his remarks on Thursday at the dinner, held this year at the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue.
But at one point in his remarks, Baird noted: "We cannot be selective in which basic human rights we defend, nor can we be arbitrary in whose rights we protect. We don't compromise on basic rights. Nor do we consider these rights to be the privilege of a select few."
His remarks focused mostly, however, on those persecuted for their religious leanings, not their sexuality.
"Reformers and reformists around the world are literally under daily attack," he said. "In too many countries, the right to believe and practise one's faith in peace and security is still measured in blood spilled and lives lost."
Christians are "far too often" targeted, Baird added.
"In Iran, we have grave concerns about the persistent and serious violations of the rights of Iranian citizens to practise Christianity," he said.
"In Egypt, Coptic Christians have come under frequent attack .... And elsewhere, Roman Catholic priests and other Christian clergy and their laity are driven underground to worship while their leaders are detained by the state."
Canada speaks out and takes action against these "truly egregious situations and abhorrent acts," he said.
It's showing its commitment to the cause by establishing the Office of Religious Freedom, Baird suggested.
The office was part of the Conservative platform in the last federal election, but since then there have been scant details about its establishment.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has touted the new office, viewing it as an opportunity for Canada to step forward as a high-profile champion of international religious rights. Critics have suggested the office represents a potentially dangerous mix of politics and religion, a charge Baird has dismissed.
The minister didn't offer up many fresh details on the office on Thursday, except to say Canada was consulting with various stakeholders at home and abroad as it worked to set it up.
"As anyone who has ever worked in, or with, government can appreciate, an endeavour like this takes some doing," he said.
"Nothing is easy. And you really only get one chance to get it right .... So we in Canada have consulted widely and listened intently. We are taking the time to get it right the first time, and to set it up for success."
Announcements about the office will be forthcoming "in due course," he added.
And he noted that Canada's diplomatic corps will play a role in its work.
"What most excites me about this new office is how it might help our diplomats around the world support religious freedom," Baird said.