Canadian flags and wooden crosses in a bunker in West Flanders, Belgium. A report on religious freedom by Aid to the Church in Need notes several instances of declining religious freedom in Canada. (Timothy Shawn Hack, Library and Archives Canada,/Flickr)

Religious freedom on decline in Canada, Aid to Church in Need report says

Although the most severe cases of religious persecution are in certain African and Asian countries, the 2023 Religious Freedom in the World report highlighted dangerous trends within the Western world, including Canada.

The report, published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), showed a rising trend in compelled speech, hate speech laws, censorship, the rise of cancel culture, and a growing intolerance toward some faith-based views in the West.

As an example of compelled speech, the report cites a practice direction from the B.C. Supreme Court that advises parties and their lawyers to adhere to self-identified gender pronouns, which the report argues “implicitly enforces adherence to gender identity belief without regard to religious or conscientious objection.”

The report’s section on Canada cites numerous ways pandemic restrictions limited religious practice.

The trucker Freedom Convoy was believed to have been “infused with a palpable faith element,” the report said. “Evidencing just how divided Canadian opinion can be on issues of religion, some pundits identified the Christian presence at the protest with ‘white Christian nationalism.’”

The report noted that several Canadian pastors were charged for violating pandemic restrictions.

During the pandemic, the number of hate crimes reported to police jumped by 27 per cent, from 2,646 incidents in 2020 to 3,360 incidents in 2021. This follows a 36 percent rise in 2020. The increase was largely a result of increases in hate crimes based on religion (+67 per cent, 884 incidents), sexual orientation (+64 per cent, 423 incidents), and race or ethnicity (+6 per cent, 1,723 incidents).

Hate crimes targeting Jews rose 47 per cent), Muslims 71 per cent, and Catholics 260 per cent).

The report notes that in 2021 following the announcement that signs of unmarked graves had been discovered near Kamloops, “many churches were set on fire in Canada, including British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan,” while 68 places of worship were attacked. 

In other Canadian cases, the report cites the Quebec Superior Court largely upholding the province’s secularism law, Bill 21. The judge said the law violated fundamental freedoms such as freedom of religion, but could not be struck down becuaee it fell under the notwithstanding clause giving governments the right to temporarily override Section 2 of the Charter for five years.

The report said hate incidents against religious minorities in Quebec have reportedly risen sharply since the law’s adoption. 

Under a section titled Prospects for Freedom of Religion, the report says Canada’s cultural divide “continues to grow, which has led to some negative stereotyping of faith-based views and of religious believers.”

Canada “continues to be a place where rule of law is respected, but generally there has been a palpable reduction in respect for religious freedom in recent years, particularly where it has come into conflict with entrenched views relating to equality, diversity, and public health.”

In some African and Asian countries, the persecution is often more direct, such as China’s internment of Uyghur Muslims or Nigerian Islamists slaughtering Christians. In Western countries, policies that discriminate against religious groups are more subtle.

“It’s not necessarily that type of persecution here [in the West],” ACN-USA Director of Outreach Edward Clancy told Catholic News Agency.

Western governments often engage in “polite persecution,” he said, referencing a term used commonly by Pope Francis. He cited examples such as a U.K. doctor who lost his job for refusing to use preferred pronouns, French laws that have restricted religious symbols in certain public places, and COVID-19 restrictions that put harsher rules on religious gatherings than other functions.

On the subject of cancel culture, the report notes that the rejection of new concepts about gender has subjected people to threats of “legal sanction” in some Western countries and that “laws have been introduced, such as hate speech, to legally enforce and entrench these concepts as new [human] rights.”

The report detailed a case in Finland in which Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola and Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen were charged with hate speech based on a Twitter post about the Lutheran teaching on homosexuality. The prosecutor general alleged that Räsänen’s post, which referenced a 2004 pamphlet published by Pohjola, was “likely to cause intolerance, contempt, and hatred towards homosexuals.”

Although the charges were dismissed, the prosecutors have appealed the verdict.

Clancy said that “people [are] being prosecuted because … they violated some standards,” such as preferred pronouns, traditional marriage, or anything “contrary to secular worldview.”

Aid to the Church in Need is also following threats in Ukraine to religious freedom amid the Russo-Ukrainian War. The report noted that Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus are now “under observation” for the next report based on concerns about religious freedom. Clancy said most of the religious freedom threats in those countries occurred later than the data considered in the 2023 report, but the organization is “very well aware of … ethnic religious nationalism in both cases” from the side of Russia and Ukraine.

According to Clancy, Ukraine has shut down Russian-speaking religious services and Russia has shut down Ukrainian religious activity in Russian-dominated areas. He said ACN has a long history of working with both countries because of the persecution that occurred in that region under communism.

“It’s a very sad reminder of what the past was like for us,” Clancy said, although he noted that this type of persecution is different from the threats that took place under communism, which threatened Christianity as a whole.


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