Secular Connexion Séculaire (SCS) and Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFI) have been tracking with dismay the Harper government's abandoning the defence of most human rights in order to focus exclusively on its concerns for the rights of religious minorities.
This government closed The International Centre For Human Rights and Democratic Development, a major Canadian organization that worked to defend all the human rights outlined in the United Nations Charter of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They have replaced it with the Office of Religious Freedom.
In forming the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) the government has consistently ignored requests for input from leaders of non-Christian organizations. In spite of repeated requests for information by both SCS and CFI, neither Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, nor his assistants have responded.
Four of the six consultants to whom the government spoke were Christian and none were Muslim, Humanist.
Prime Minister Harper tried to heal the slight to Muslims by choosing a Muslim Mosque to make the official announcement of the appointment of Andrew Bennett to head the Office of Religious Freedoms. At that time, in response to a question from a National Post reporter, Harper begrudgingly said that the ORF would follow Canadian practice and treat atheism and agnosticism as if they are beliefs warranting protection. The new appointee, Dr. Andrew Bennett, reiterated a similar sentiment, albeit weakly in a press conference shortly thereafter.
Their words ring hollow in the light of comments made by John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs in speeches to international groups.
Minister Baird, in an address to the United Nations said, "We don't see agnosticism and atheism as being in need of defence in the same way persecuted religious minorities are. We speak of the right to worship and practice in peace, not the right to stay away from places of worship."
In his address to the 2012 Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington DC, Minister Baird said, "We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion." This statement completely ignores comments made by the Supreme Court of Canada that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. (Regina v. Big M Drugs, 1982).
Mr. Baird's emphasis in the same speech on protecting the rights of Christians in the minority is palpable.
What Minister Baird is missing, either intentionally or because he is ill-informed without consultation with Humanist groups such as CFI and SCS, is that agnostics and atheists are regularly targetted by religious groups who work with the sanction of local police.
In eleven countries, holding agnostic and atheist philosophies is illegal and often punishable by death. Since many agnostics and atheists in these countries are apostates, people who have moved away from Islam, they are in even greater danger.
Canada, home of the author of the UN Charter of Human Rights, must move to protect the human rights and safety of anyone who suffers from oppression in the world. That the Harper government has decided to focus only on religious rights and even that in a way that excludes agnostics and atheists is unacceptable. To ask Mr. Baird and Dr. Bennett to include protection for atheists and agnostics in the Office of Religious Freedom email your thoughts to the Office of Religious Freedom: RFF-FLR@international.gc.ca.