Religious persecution highlighted at gathering of Canadian bishops

An interfaith and ecumenical panel addressed religious freedom at CCCB plenary Sept. 24 in Cornwall. (Photo by Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News)

Recognize a trajectory of religious persecution Evangelical Fellowship of Canada leader warns CCCB plenary

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

[Cornwall, Ontario – CCN] – Religious persecution always has a starting point, a trajectory and like cancer it needs early detection and diagnosis an Evangelical leader told Canada’s Catholic bishops Sept. 24.

Compared to the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the world, “we have it pretty good,” David Guretzki, Executive Vice-President and resident theologian of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told the annual gathering of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) as part of an ecumenical and interfaith panel on religious freedom.

Most of the current challenges to religious freedom in Canada are “annoyances, inequities and in some cases injustices,” Guretzki said. “In and of themselves they have not prevented the People of God, the Church, from carrying out her mission.”

“They may destroy careers, or inhibit places where the Gospel word may be formed,” he told the more than 80 bishops and eparchs who met in plenary session from Sept. 23-27 in Cornwall, ON.

David Guretzki, Executive Vice-President and resident theologian of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. (Photo by Deborah Gyapong – Canadian Catholic News)

Guretzki gave as examples the refusal of Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) grants to Bible camps and pregnancy care centres; the unjust Trinity Western University Supreme Court decision that denied law students accreditation in law societies even before the law school opened; and the serious injustice Ontario physicians face regarding conscience rights when it comes to euthanasia, abortion and other morally questionable procedures.

He also decried Bill 21 in Quebec forcing public servants, teachers and other government employees to remove any religious symbols or headgear.

Those in power implementing these policies may see them as “tests for future appetites for restrictions on religious freedom,” Guretzki said. This could be “cultural preparation and normalization for a future day when formal restrictions on the practices of religion may be introduced.”

“Religious freedom is still materially operative in Canada, but we sense in our own community that Christians are beginning to experience an emerging level of angst and fear,” he said.

Guretzki named five areas religious communities need to challenge government: conscience protections for those in the medical field; continued denial of CSJ funding on faith and moral grounds; increased bureaucratic pressure in the workplace for people to participate in “ideologically driven events,” contrary to religious beliefs; legislative action against “so-called conversion therapy” that may target normal Christian counselling; and Quebec’s Bill 21.

Rabbi Reuben Joshua Poupko, Rabbi of Beth Israel Aaron Congregation in Montreal and co-chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus (CRC) and co-chair of the CCCB-CRC national dialogue told bishops it was a “profound irony” that a rabbi is speaking to a Catholic group “when the single most persecuted group in the world” are Christians and the Catholic Church.

“It is the Christian church being persecuted in places like China and the Middle East,” Rabbi Poupko said. “The tragic irony is that in our culture in North America, if someone were to speak about my faith or the Islamic faith the way Christians are spoken about, they would be completely disparaged for their racism and bigotry.”

The rabbi also acknowledged the lack of support Christians and Catholics receive from around the world for the persecution they face.

While Bill 21 is “an egregious assault on religious freedom, it does not affect too many Jews,” he said. Though the bill bans prison guards from wearing religious symbols, “most Jews in prison are visiting their clients.”

The bill also called for the removal of the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, “something we mourned greatly because it guaranteed the presence of once Jew in the National Assembly,” he said.

Bill 21 enjoys “overwhelming support” in all parts of Quebec, he said. Since the debate, he has for the first time experienced people shouting at him. Having experienced little anti-Semitism during his 30 years in Quebec, he said the secularism debate has “poisoned the religious environment.”

While the province is still a “welcoming and tolerant society,” the bill “has made certain elements feel emboldened,” Rabbi Poupko said.

Imam Mohamed Refaat, President of the Canadian Council of Imans, spoke of the challenges the Muslim community faces, not only regarding Bill 21 but elsewhere in Canada. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the Muslim community is growing, but running up against zoning regulations that prevent them from building mosques. Present facilities sometimes have to run three or four sessions of Friday prayers to accommodate worshippers, he said. He also spoke of the challenges students have faced in the Peel Region and elsewhere in having public schools accommodate Friday prayers of Muslim students.

Fr. Deacon Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and program director of Cardus Law, told the bishops Catholics must “live their baptism” and “reject relativism and syncretism.”

“Religious freedom is not simply an inherent freedom we cherish, we have a responsibility to act on it as well as on all fundamental freedoms,” Bennett said.

“Even if all our institutions are taken way, even if we lose our schools, even if we lose our charitable status, even if we’re pushed to margins of polite society, even if the government no longer listens to us, we must never tire of proclaiming the Gospel,” he said.

“The challenge is not from the state or from the media,” he said. “The challenge is the very serious failure to take responsibility for a living public faith for the good of all.”

Bennett said Catholics are “shackled by poor formation” and “fear and anxiety about what the Great Commission calls us to do.”

“We must pray that the Holy Spirit will raise up martyrs and confessors in our country and clergy and faithful will support these witnesses to the truth,” he said.

Bennett called for these confessors and martyrs to speak of the truth of the Incarnation and of human dignity; to combat the lies about faith and lies against human suffering; and the notion that human beings are objects to be dispensed with through abortion or euthanasia.

“You are more aware than me of the responsibility you bear,” Bennett told the bishops. “You share in our Lord’s ministry of self-emptying for the world. You are charged with transmitting the kerygma. You wear the purple and scarlet of martyrdom.”

“Do not be afraid,” he said.

Pandit Roopnauth Sharma, President of the Hindu Federation of Canada, said the Hindu community does not have any specific case where their religious freedom is being undermined or challenged.

He said that when groups feel their practice of religion is being challenged, they should ask whether that tradition poses risks to others; whether it poses a possible health problem; or whether it is against the law of the land.

“We must have a united front whenever one of us is facing difficulties,” he said, noting that a collective voice will “make a difference” in how laws are framed and implemented. “It is a counter-witness when we disagree.”

“When we disagree and we will, it must be based on total understanding of each other’s point of view,” he said. Then we can “agree to disagree and respect each other’s right to be different.”

“I think we have failed at all times to do this. We tend to criticize each other.”

Anglican Bishop Bruce Joseph Andrew Myers of Quebec acknowledged the past wrongs the Anglican Church had committed against religious freedom through its entanglement with the Crown, noting specifically the persecution of Catholics and others after the Reformation.

“Each person is free to practice the religion of their choice, or free not to practice any,” he said.