OTTAWA – Canada and other western nations must stand up for religious freedom in those countries where religious freedom is restricted or non-existent, says international expert Christof Sauer.
Recent sociological data from the Pew Research Centre show that one third of the world's population lives under conditions where religious persecution has worsened over the last few years, he said.
Altogether, two-thirds of the world's population lives in countries where religious freedom is restricted.
"It's crucial more countries than just the United States are publicly seen as promoting religious freedom," said Sauer, co-director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF).
Canada is seen as more neutral than the U.S., not as threatening, and not tied up with overtones of world policing or pursuing its own power and influence, he said.
Religious freedom "should not be seen as an interest of the United States only, but the interest of every free and reasonable society," he said.
Sauer is a German national who is based in Cape Town, South Africa, at Stellenbosch University where he is an associate professor of theology.
He met in Ottawa recently with officials involved in the set-up of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom promised in the last federal election.
Canada and other countries need to establish "high-profile offices institutionally incorporated into government structures" that are adequately funded and "put a public face to religious freedom" so the issue "permeates foreign policy," he said.
Religious persecution develops like a slippery slope, that slides from false allegations, disinformation and rumours about targeted groups, he said.
When people are "put in a corner and others don't want to associate with them," it is much easier for a government or a society to ascribe second-class citizen status.
Once groups are marginalized, no one will defend them anymore and it becomes easy for them to be attacked with impunity by other social groups, religious groups, mobs, militias or government forces, he said.
"It is important to counter the first steps of development and speak up loudly against rumours, lies and false allegations," he said. "Other religions should stand up for each other."
Research has shown that Hitler's persecution was not going to end with the Jews, Gypsies and those with differing sexual orientations, Sauer said. "The Jews were just the first on the hit list of Hitler."
"He planned to get rid of Christians later," he said.
"In India, Hindu nationalist forces lashed out against Muslims in the country and the Christians often didn't speak up so much," he said. "They regretted it because they were next a few years later."
"If you defend religious freedom, you have to defend it for everyone. You can't claim religious freedom just for yourself (and say) the others are heretics, it serves them right. Religious freedom is indivisible."
Religious persecution demonstrated through violence, church burnings, bombings and murders are not the only form the IIRF considers problematic.
"Many laws can be used to stifle religion," and "draw the strength out of religious groups," he said.
Laws about property use can be used to prevent churches from registering, and when members start meeting in private homes, prosecuting them for violating laws against the use of private homes for religious purposes, he said.
Churches can be denied building permits. In Egypt, Coptic churches could not even fix "a broken loo" without presidential approval, he said.
Governments can also set age limits for religious participation, then raise those limits, effectively limiting the ability of Church members to pass on the faith to younger generations, he said.
Sauer also expressed concern over attempts by secularists to strip the public square of religious content and even to marginalize religious believers from public life.
Secularists are asking for a "naked public square," but Sauer advocates a "civil public square where world views and religions and beliefs and non-beliefs in all civility engage with each other in debates."
Sauer is troubled by efforts in the West to limit the notion of religious freedom to mere freedom of worship, terms used by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the covenants that followed did not only deal with the internal "belief of the heart," but also the "public voicing of one's opinion, the communal celebration of one's faith and even its propagation," he said.