In this issue of Convivium, Andrew Bennett, Ambassador for Canada's Office of Religious Freedom, recounts this tale from his October 2013 visit to Turkey, during which he met with all the different religious communities and had conversations with the ecumenical patriarch, with the Jewish community in Istanbul, and with different Muslim communities.
"The very last meeting I had during my visit was with the Religious Affairs Ministry within Turkey that's been around since the Ottoman times. It is one of the largest departments in the Turkish government. It oversees all of the imams in Turkey. They're responsible for determining what those imams will preach on a given Friday. When I met with them, I raised a number of issues of religious freedom in Turkey very frankly, including the restoration of both civil and ecclesiastical properties to different churches, restoration of civil properties to the Jewish community. These properties number in the thousands, including the Theological School of Halki (of the Ecumenical Patriarchate). I was very frank about that, and I said, "Why are these not being restored? Why are you not moving faster in terms of the restoration of these properties?" I raised questions around the transformation of part of old Byzantine churches in the country that have been museums for much of the last century, about part of them being turned into prayer spaces for Muslims. So I raised a number of issues out of concern for religious freedom and respect for different faith communities. One of the people I was talking with said: "Well, thank you, Ambassador Bennett, for engaging with us on these questions and raising these issues with us. Perhaps we could come and help you with Quebec."
Is it important that we have an office of religious freedom? Or should we find answers in our own backyard?
"Andrew Bennett's story in this particular vignette strikes me as a perfect example of the tensions that must exist in this kind of office. While in Turkey in 2008, I encountered a remarkable lack of tolerance for religions other than Islam. Can we learn from countries with these kinds of cultures? If we want to influence them, there must be some kind of give-and-take approach. Canada cannot arrive in another country as benevolent missionary anymore; everyone has health care and education already. The Office of Religious Freedom's mandate is "to protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat; oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad." Well, that is all give. If the project is to succeed, this office needs to expand its mandate to involve more take. What can Canada gain from countries whose philosophies on religious tolerance differ from its own? If the answer is "nothing," the Office will fail."
"Foreign affairs always runs a hypocrite's gamble: pressuring and encouraging the virtues that Canadians hold dear abroad, when our practice at home is far from perfect. The launch of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 dovetailed a little too conveniently for some with the (defeated) Charter of Quebec Values, raising the now often-repeated charge to "get our own house in order" before going abroad. This argument makes two very important political mistakes. First, it intentionally ignores the spectrum on which political and social problems take place, falsely presuming that scale and severity do not matter. To say that the Charter of Quebec Values would have been a violation of religious freedom of the same kind as Turkey's seizure of places of worship is to say Canada is a lawless society of the same kind as, say, Somalia and its infamous offshore piracy because there is jaywalking in Montreal during rush hour. Both are lawless acts, but prudential politics recognizes that degree matters. The second major mistake in this argument is the expectation that Canadian society will have worked out to a nearly perfect degree the fullest expression of its most cherished virtues before preaching them. Obviously, this will never be true. Canada's most cherished virtues are aspirational. We aspire to be people of generosity, of fairness, of tolerance, of justice and of genuine pluralism. Societies and people do not arrive at these things. They aspire to them. And it is, after all, what we love, what we aspire to, that is the best definition of a people and of a country."
"I get that the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom has, from the beginning, been one of overseas advocacy and domestic literacy. This was probably its only politically saleable mandate. But to the extent that religious inequities — I'd avoid calling them persecutions — happen here in Canada, that is the extent to which our ambassador will lose credibility in foreign countries. If Quebec starts a run on Christians and Muslims, you can bet that foreign leaders will escape the moral weight of our scrutiny with a simple, "Check the plank in your own eye first, sir." Getting the Office a domestic advocacy mandate may soon be a necessary protection for Canada's believers."
"In a culture that generally misunderstands or ignores religion, the Office of Religious Freedom has an important awareness-raising role to play. Simply its presence and the voice of the Ambassador into the conversation will assist in raising the conversation about religious freedom in a culture that is prone to forget it. That said, I do have some cautions or concerns about how this might translate into domestic issues. There is little doubt that religious freedom is in jeopardy in Canada as much as in other parts of the world, largely because religion is misunderstood as a private matter without public consequence, and when religious persons invoke religion publicly, they are increasingly marginalized and their arguments are rarely understood or taken seriously. However, domestic religious freedom issues are matters with which I would be reluctant to see the Ambassador involve himself with directly. Not only are they politically fraught and nearly impossible, but I would expect that, over time, the effects would be opposite what might be hoped for. Just as commissions tasked with protecting human rights have become policers of free speech in a way that most would consider contradictory to their mission, so domestic religious freedom could easily be curtailed rather than protected by the domestic involvement of a publicly funded office for that purpose. The challenge is for individuals and civil society institutions to engage the domestic religious freedom debates so that they are valued and respected domestically, which will give the Ambassador the moral authority he requires to credibly raise these issues on Canada's behalf in international and diplomatic contexts."