Bishop Fred Henry

October 24, 2011

With more than 100 religious leaders in attendance on Oct. 3, International Affairs Minister John Baird opened formal consultation on the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom.

The office's mandate is intended to promote and protect freedom of religion and belief, consistent with Canadian values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The office will operate within the department of foreign affairs and international trade.

While much remains undecided, at first blush, this look like a very important promissory note in view of a sampling of recent happenings reported in Catholic Culture News Headlines for Oct. 11 and 12 such as:

  • Bishop warns of growing Islamic extremism in Indonesia.
  • Muslim mob attacks Christians in Pakistan.
  • Coptic Catholic spokesman: Egyptian government complicit in church burnings.
  • Pakistan: 12-year-old Christian girls kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam.
  • U.S. Supreme Court: World Vision may fire non-Christian employees.

Not only Christians, but also Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religious groups can find themselves discriminated against or attacked in various countries, especially where they are a minority. Small incidents can spark large reactions and outbursts.

A December 2009 Pew study on Global Restrictions on Religion found that 64 nations, with 70 per cent of the world's population, have high or very high restrictions on religion. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, scored high or very high on both governmental and social restrictions.

Others, like Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Bangladesh, score high on social hostilities, but were more moderate regarding government restrictions. And others, like China and Vietnam, scored high on government restrictions, but had more moderate levels of social hostilities.

While many nations have freedom of religion provisions in their constitutions, the Pew study found that only 27 per cent fully respected religious rights.

Government restrictions include: controlling religious groups through registration, fines, harassment, prohibiting conversions, restricting foreign missionaries and favouring one religious group over others.

The Pew study considers social hostilities to be concrete, hostile actions that effectively hinder the religious activities of the targeted individuals or groups. These may include: harassment over attire, practices or occupations which run counter to those of the majority religion; vandalism of religious property or homes of religious minorities; and beatings and murders.

Whether restrictions on religion are imposed by government or by society, religious minorities are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a cultural, economic or political threat to the majority.

In many countries, Christians are a religious minority that has been under attack. In some countries, Christians may be viewed as a threat because in advocating for the common good and for respect of the dignity of all people, their values challenge the traditional social order and expose economic inequalities.


In some countries, political parties use religion as a rallying cry to gain supporters and mask oppression of religious minorities under the guise of preserving a national identity and culture. In other countries, tensions among ethnic groups over land, resources and access to education and employment that erupt into violence can be framed as a religious dispute if the groups are of different religions. Some states view religious adherence as a challenge to their authority and seek to control believers.

Catholic teaching declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men and women are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such a way that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

There are two important things to note here: First, men and women are not to be forced to act contrary to their beliefs; second, that this freedom from coercion is operative only within due limits.


This principle of liberty is advanced simply because duties always entail corresponding rights, and persons cannot discharge their obligation to seek the truth unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. This freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature.

Hence it applies even to those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it. But again, there is a limitation: The exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

The reason for religious liberty is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby a person sets the course of his or her life directly toward God.

No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. These acts transcend by their nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs. Therefore, government ought to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favour. But it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.