Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Address by Minister Baird at Religious Liberty Dinner

It is a real pleasure to be part of this year’s Religious Liberty Dinner.

This is a marquee event on the calendar for those who care about human rights and, especially, freedom of religion.

So I would like to thank the organizers and their team for the invitation to be a part of tonight.

I love being here in Washington.

This is a capital city that embodies the hopes and aspirations of a truly great nation—even in times of political gridlock.

The United States, of course, is a country built on the very notion of religious freedom.

It was in a search for such freedom that the first pilgrims came to America’s shores.

It is why so many people still immigrate to the United States and to Canada today: that promise, that potential for a better life in which one can live freely, worship freely and draw upon one’s faith to contribute to the greater good of society—something greater than oneself.

Our countries are examples to the world of freedom and refuge for all those craving to exercise their God-given right to worship their god and to do so in freedom and security.

Standing here, I can’t help but think about someone who is, sadly, with us in spirit only: a man of great humility and extraordinary courage.

Three years ago, Shahbaz Bhatti was appointed Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities.

He was the only Christian in Cabinet. And his role was to give Pakistan’s many religious minorities a voice in government and a greater presence in society.

He worked to make life better for “the oppressed, the downtrodden and the marginalized” of Pakistan, under constant imminent threat to his own safety.

Tragically, Shahbaz was assassinated last year for his work and his ideals. He was only 42 years old.

Just a month earlier, Shahbaz had been in Canada, visiting our prime minister and other government ministers. He was an incredibly impressive person.

The news of his passing was felt at the heart of our government.

To see someone doing what is right, and what is just, so tragically silenced before his time…

That should never be the case. Each of us should reject that notion outright.

Friends, Shabaz Bhatti’s story, sadly, is far more common than many truly grasp—and far more common than it should be.

Reformers and reformists around the world are literally under daily attack. And far too many pay the ultimate price in their quest for the basic rights that many of us in pluralistic, democratic societies take for granted.

The Jewish people know this issue all too well.

For thousands of years and in too many societies, people have tried to limit their right to practise their religion or, worse, tried to exterminate them outright.

The Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms and, most horrific of all, the Holocaust are just a few examples of how evil can manifest itself, and how religious intolerance can take shape.

While legitimacy for the Jewish state dates back thousands of years, when the world woke up from the horrors of the Holocaust, no reasonable actor could deny the necessity of its right to exist any longer.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish people were on the front lines of the global struggle against fascism. Six million people died for no other reason than their religious identity.

Sadly, we now see Israel on the front lines of this generation’s great struggle—against terrorism.

The Jewish people live with the constant, existential threat to the state of Israel.

The world cannot take the words of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime as mere rhetoric and cannot risk appeasing these malicious actors in the same way as it once appeased the Nazis. We see the costs of such an approach, and we will not validate these actors’ positions in any way.

We take this view because we believe that these threats are genuine.

We contend that modern anti-Semitism is alive in the disproportionate criticism Israel receives, and the refusal to accept its right to exist.

Some have allowed the principle of moral relativism to consume rational thought. Equating Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, with international terrorist organizations is simply a flawed premise.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and under this foreign affairs minister, Canada will stand with the Jewish state and people as they struggle to protect their very right to exist.

We cannot and will not allow history to repeat itself.

In too many countries, the right to believe in and practise one’s faith in peace and security is still measured in blood spilled and lives lost.

This is not an abstract debate.

Blasphemy laws target religious minorities.

In the last three years, the terror group Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in Nigerian markets and in the offices of media organizations, as well as in churches and other sacred places.

In northern Mali, terrorists have destroyed centuries-old religious sites, including a World Heritage site in Timbuktu.

In Burma, despite recent reforms, the regime continues to discriminate against certain forms of Buddhism and restricts the activities of Muslims.

In other places, it’s the Bahá’í or the Ahmadiyya Muslims who face violence, despite peaceful guiding principles that, in the case of the Bahá’í, include the oneness of humanity and the common foundation of all religions, as well as independent investigation of truth.

Yet far too often those targeted are Christians.

Christians, in particular, face persecution in countries around the world.

We have grave concerns about the persistent and serious violations in Iran of the rights of Iranian citizens to practise Christianity, including those facing charges of apostasy.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians have come under frequent attack—as they did, devastatingly, in Alexandria this past New Year’s Eve.

Elsewhere, Roman Catholic priests and other Christian clergy and laity are driven underground to worship, while their leaders are detained by the state.

Against these egregious situations and abhorrent acts—which steal from people a fundamental right—Canada speaks out and takes action.

In Iraq, where the United States has fought mightily and paid dearly to combat tyranny and secure for the people a better, brighter future, many challenges remain. Fundamental freedoms are the domain of the select few. And Christians are not always among the few.

Al Qaeda has driven out many Christians and other minorities.

So Canada is taking up the struggle for basic rights and has implemented a program to resettle refugees.

Canada has a tradition that some in our country seemed to forget during the latter half of the last century: a tradition of standing for freedom and fundamental rights, a tradition of standing against oppression.

We did so in the earliest days of World War II.

Canadians, including my grandfather, stood with the brave people of Europe’s captive nations.

My grandfather, and those with whom he served, answered the moral call to act.

He believed, as I do today, that going along with a common thought was a dangerous road to travel—far more dangerous than risking his life to protect our values, our freedom and our dignity.

Just as fascism and communism were the great struggles of his generation, terrorism is the great struggle of ours.

Too often, religious minorities around the world are on the front lines of this struggle.

And yet, after the Second World War, some decision makers lost sight of our proud tradition to do what is right and just.

Some decided it would be better to paint Canada as a so-called honest broker.

I call it being afraid to take a clear position… even when that’s what’s needed.

So I’m proud to say Canada no longer simply “goes along to get along” in the conduct of its foreign policy.

We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.

We do so as part of our commitment to basic rights for all.

We do so in honour of the great men and women of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation”—in honour of their sacrifice.

There is special purpose in defending the freedom of religious belief and practice. History shows us that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed on the eve of global war:

“Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy. Where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared. And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.”

Simply put, societies that protect religious freedom are more likely to protect other fundamental freedoms.

They are typically more stable and more prosperous.

When you have religious freedom, other freedoms follow.

That is why religious freedom is front and centre in foundational documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and both our countries’ bills of rights.

This view has been reinforced in consultations we have held across Canada and around the world as we plan for our own Office of Religious Freedom.

The United States has experience with this concept. And I would like to thank Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook [U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom] for meeting with me to share her insights on dos and don’ts.

As anyone who has ever worked in or with government can appreciate, an endeavour like this takes some doing.

Nothing is easy. And you really only get one chance to get it right.

We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

So we in Canada have consulted widely and listened intently. We are taking the time to get the Office of Religious Freedom right the first time and to set it up for success.

We will be making more announcements to that end in due course.

What most excites me about this new office is how it might support our diplomats around the world in zeroing in on matters of free faith and free worship.

Canada is a country of tolerance and acceptance, peace and security. We are also a pluralistic society. Our diversity gives us a unique perspective on the world.

The Canadian political tradition involves working with different faith groups to deliver social programs and wider benefits than government ever could alone.

And the world view we share with the United States acknowledges we have many ethnicities and religions, but we share one humanity.

A political hero of mine is former Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker.

During his time in office, he championed human rights both in Canada and around the world. On the day he introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament, he spoke these words:

“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”

Today that great challenge, that awesome responsibility, is shared by my Cabinet colleagues and me. And it is important work that we take seriously.

The words of William Wilberforce [1759-1833] still ring true today: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

While individuals are persecuted for their religious beliefs, we cannot say that we did not know.

Like the United States, we realize that 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.

We stand firm on the ideas, principles and traditions that have made both our countries economically prosperous and rich with diversity.

I know each of you shares this commitment. And let me assure you that in this regard you have a dedicated partner in Canada, one willing to lead by example.