Prime Minister Stephen Harper will unveil the government’s long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom and name Canada’s first religious freedom ambassador at a Toronto-area Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre on Tuesday.
The announcement at Tahir Hall in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan will fulfil a two-year-old promise that has seen its fair share of controversy since it was first proposed during the 2011 federal election.
The government has pointed to a growing body of literature linking religious freedom with democratic rights and societal well-being to justify making the safeguarding of religious minorities abroad a key tenet of Canadian foreign policy.
But critics have worried about the government picking and choosing which religions the $20-million office defends, and using the institution as a tool for domestic political gain.
The government has not officially confirmed the prime minister’s presence at Tahir Hall, which was opened by the World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad,in last July last year. The three-storey complex can hold 800 people and was built by the community on land adjacent to the Baitul Islam Mosque in Peace Village.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s spokesman Rick Roth would only say the office “is a priority for our government, and is a part of our principled foreign policy.”
However, numerous organizations have confirmed receiving invitations to the prime minister’s event, which was first reported by Ottawa-based foreign policy newspaper Embassy.
Those interviewed expressed cautious excitement about the religious freedom office’s official launch.
They say the need to protect religious minorities and freedom is as critical now as when the government promised the initiative two years ago.
“The potential (for the office) is great,” said Kathryn White, executive director of the United Nations Association of Canada. “But there remain lots of potential pitfalls in terms of how the office actually conducts its mandate.”
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar noted the government discussed the office with international religious leaders, such as leaders of the Coptic Orthodox church, that boast a large number of members in key ridings across Canada.