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To a regional meeting of leaders of a Canadian church

By Hon. David Kilgour

The assigned topic is the persecution of Christians internationally and what Canadians might do to reduce it. All human dignity is ultimately indivisible across the world today, so I'll widen the focus to include other spiritual communities. Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) put this point best when he said about the Nazis: "...Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me."
'Countries of Particular Concern'
The bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was established a decade ago to monitor freedom of thought, conscience and religion as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It  recommended in mid-2009 that the following countries be designated "Countries of Particular Concern": Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The link between religious intolerance and political instability/violence is important. The Ontario journalist Geoffrey Johnston explains:  "Those countries that do not actively protect religious minorities or prosecute the perpetrators of religiously-motivated violence are ultimately undermining their own security.  A climate of impunity tends to embolden militants, who eventually turn against the state, using violence to advance their agenda. Pakistan and Nigeria are prime examples of governments that have allowed extremist groups to attack religious minority communities before they themselves became the targets of terror strikes."
The 20th century was the worst in history in terms of violence directed at spiritual communities.  It is estimated, for example, that more Christians were killed in the 20th century than in the previous nineteen combined. One estimate of the number of human beings from all nationalities who died prematurely for their faith between 1900 and 2000 is a dismaying 169 million, including: 70 million Muslims; 35 million Christians; 11 million Hindus; 9 million Jews; 4 million Buddhists; 2 million Sikhs and 1 million Baha'is.
Freedom of religion

Religious persecution means any violation of the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion, as defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  In Canada, we have the right to exercise religious freedom regardless of our beliefs. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that everyone enjoys freedom of conscience and religion.  This freedom to worship, or to choose not to worship, is part of Canada’s appeal to immigrants from many lands who come here to pursue more fulfilled lives. 

Religious freedom is a universal value; most of the world’s nations have signed  international agreements committing them to respect individual freedom of thought, conscience and belief.  In too many, however, nationals continue to suffer for their beliefs or practice of their faiths;  their governments refuse to recognize or protect this basic right.

Most of the persecution of spiritual communities during the 1900s and early years of the present century was committed by  regimes which detested all religions, primarily because practitioners’ deepest loyalties lay elsewhere.  Totalitarians around the world continue to persecute  them with varying degrees of severity. 
Here are three sharply differing  situations:
One of  many cases to come out of China,  whose party-state remains one of the world's worst violators of religious and other basic  rights, is that of Liu Zhenying,  better known in Canada as Brother Yun.  His experiences as a follower of Jesus in his homeland, some of you have probably read about in his autobiography,  The Heavenly Man, published in 2002. He and the book have impacted many, including those who attended the more than one thousand meetings he has held  in numerous parts of the world. His latest book, Living Water, came out last year.
Consider too the experience of another Christian, Gao Zhisheng, who has been persecuted mostly because of standing up for another large spiritual community,  Falun Gong (some of whose own horrifying experiences over ten years can be accessed at  He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. In 2001, he was named one of China's top ten lawyers despite not attending  law school because of the cost. His family was so poor that they lived in a cave when he was born. As a lawyer, he donated a third of his time to victims of human rights violations, representing miners, evicted tenants and others.

First the regime removed Gao's permit to practise law. This was followed by an attempt on his life, having police attack his wife and 14-year-old daughter and denying the family any income. It worsened when Gao launched nationwide hunger strikes and called for justice and human dignity. In 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison for 'inciting subversion of state power'; international pressure appears to have caused a suspension of the sentence for five years.
The Canadian Friends of Gao wrote Prime Minister Harper earlier this year asking him to intervene for his release.   The  letter ended: "Well-wishers of China had long hoped that the country’s economic growth would be accompanied by increased respect for human rights and the rule of law. The reality has been quite the contrary; instead of honouring the obligations prescribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which China is a signatory, blatant human rights violations persist. Having courageously sought justice for vulnerable groups such as the poor, the disabled, and the persecuted, Gao's story is a light shining in the darkness, and a reminder that all of us must stand up for what we believe and affirm. "
In Sudan, the Bashir regime has probably slaughtered more than 400,000 African Darfuris and expelled six times as many--an estimated 2.5 milllion, after having killed an estimated two million and expelled even more in the predominantly Christian and animist South Sudan.  Do try to read Tears of the Desert for Dr. Halima Bashir`s horrifying account of her years as a medical doctor in a Darfur village.
It’s a genocide by Arab Muslims against African Muslims, and earlier in the South against Christians and animists.  Eric Reeves, a leading observer of Darfur, notes there are currently about 3.5 million people affected by its conflict, with about 10,000 dying per month from various unnatural causes.  The personal testimony and pleas of Mia Farrow and others to protect the people of Darfur is deeply compelling.


Marc Gopin, a senior researcher at the Tufts University’s Institute for Human Security, wrote some years ago about the then increasing attacks by Hindu militants upon Christians in parts of India. Fortunately, the numerous educational and other works done by Christians in India over the generations, along with the commitment of most Indians to religious pluralism, normally makes it hard to sustain persecution against  both Christians and other faith communities.  The most dangerous friction in India is between Hindu and Muslim.  I agree fully with Gopin that Gandhians across India should rekindle the movement towards conflict resolution and reconciliation not attempted on a large scale since the days of Gandhi himself.  Indian Christians could play a constructive role here as well.

The more recent experiences in Orissa were hopefully terrible exceptions. The Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance  issued a report on the situation in late February, just prior to the national elections in India. Several Canadian MPs picked up on the report and wrote to the national government of India.  The Supreme Court in rule of law and democratic India ruled that the national government was responsible for maintaining peace in Orissa and could not allow the state and local governments to ignore the illegal local persecution.  Canadians do impact what is taking place internationally. It is vital that more of us speak up about violations of spiritual freedoms regardless of where they occur. It is nonsense to suggest, for example, that doing so might affect our trade with a particular country.

What Can We do?
One major lesson for all  religious communities is clear: if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder when anyone in our own or another is being persecuted anywhere, lives can be saved. For example,  in the '90s  hundreds of Edmontonians of many faiths demonstrated at city hall concerning the murderous persecution of Muslims in Bosnia.  Later, many of us did the same at the legislative assembly over the persecution of Christians in Pakistan. Hopefully, it made a difference;  thousands of Canadian soldiers did join the NATO peacemakers that eventually went into the Balkans.
Developments in the post 9/11 period brought  another test of Canadian resolve.  One of its immediate consequences was an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and Jews across  the world.  The Samaj Hindu Temple of Hamilton was burned four days after September 11th by arsonists.  This act of vengeful ignorance was roundly condemned by the vast majority of  Canadians, who were horrified by this attack. Many offered support; the temple was reopened fully restored to its original form.
It is only through mutual respect, understanding and support that we can build a better world which all peoples, religions and cultures can genuinely call their own.  In the new century, morover, probably more than ever in world history, only if faith communities can cooperate will peace across a shrunken planet be feasible. His Holiness the Dalai Lama called for a century of compassion at `We Day` in Vancouver recently ( in front of 16,000 student leaders. I think he did the same thing at events later in Calgary and Montreal.
Worse Than War
Daniel Goldhagen`s new book--evidently ten years in the writing--Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, has a full chapter of suggestions on what all of us can do, including:
1- Develop an anti-eliminationist discourse which confronts facts.  ''Mass murder and eliminationist politics are humanity`s human scourge,... more murderous than wars...Yet on the nightly local (U.S.) news mass annihilation receives far less attention-in absolute terms-than house fires. In relative terms, according to death toll and human suffering, the media underplay eliminationist slaughters and expulsions and incarcerations by a thousand to a million times.'' He adds that the American media finally did create pressure on the Clinton administration to act in Bosnia.
2- Referring to mass murderers by their real names, rather than as ''President x or Y''. He gives examples, including ''Serbian mass murderer Milos Milosevic'' instead of "former president Milosevic'' and ''Sudanese mass murderer al-Bashir'' instead of ''President al-Bashir of Sudan''. He thinks that some tyrants might be deterred from acts of genocide or mass murder if they knew they would forever after be known by such titles.
3- ''The world`s non-mass-murdering countries are wealthy and powerful...The countries perpetuating mass murder... or tempted to do so, are overwhelmingly poor and weak (and each stands alone). Many could easily be stopped with a little military power and probably with other available, easily employable means...(This)... would radically change potential perpetrators' cost-benefit calculus, heavily tilting the scales toward noneliminationist political options.''  In my own view, external force in my view should only be used as a last resort as, for example, in Bosnia.
Canada`s concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was intended to apply in situations where governments are abusing or killing their own people. The UN Security Council has diluted the notion by giving a veto on the use of peacemakers to its five government members having permanent vetoes. Some of the five clearly do not agree with what R2P is attempting to achieve.
Here's a thought from the U.S. International Religious Freedom report several years ago: “And so religious freedom endures as an ideal, even while threats to it never cease.  Though naturally endowed in all people, freedom does not occur naturally in the world.  History bears abundant witness to the enduring tension between freedom’s resilience as a natural aspiration of the human heart, and freedom’s fragility in the reality of human life.  While the number of people living in freedom around the world today is strong and growing, too many others still suffer under oppressive regimes, authoritarian rulers, and intolerant systems.  Freedom may be a reality for many, but it remains still only a dream for too many others.”
Finally, I wish everyone could read Karen Armstrong's latest book on religion, The Case for God.  Let me quote only from the end of it: "The point of religion (is) to live intensely and richly here and now. Truly religious people are ambitious.They want lives overflowing with significance...Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they (seek) to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain...They (try) to honour the ineffable mystery they (sense) in each human being and create societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed. Of course, they often (fail), sometimes abysmally. But overall they (find) that the disciplines of religion (help) them to do all this..."  . Is this reality not partly why spiritual communities are vital to the well-being of peoples everywhere? Thank you.
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