Friday, 26 July 2013

Office of Religious Freedom Ambassador Responds to Secular Connexion President

Atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin face covered with blood.
Atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin after being nearly stabbed to death.
So Bangladeshi atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin got stabbed and nearly died just for expressing his non-belief in gods or religion - exercising his freedom of conscience.

"We operated on him for more than three hours. He is improving but still not out of danger. He has six deep cuts including two grave ones in the shoulder," Haridas Saha, a surgeon at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, told AFP.

Then he was thrown in jail for nearly three months where he became gravely ill.

You see, he was nearly murdered and then imprisoned for "hurting religious beliefs." Which is pretty much the same reason Egyptian Alber Saber was imprisoned. Both men were physically attacked and nearly killed just for expressing their honest disbelief in a god.

The IHEU published an English translation of one of Asif's final blog posts. I was written by Asif just after he was nearly stabbed to death and just prior to him being thrown into jail for hurting religious sensibilities. It's a gruesome and riveting read: "Speak, for the cup of hemlock is not yet on your lips" by jailed atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin.

Then, just last month, Asif was released on bail.  And how did he get this bail?  Did the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom ride in on white horses with Andrew Bennett at the lead?  Was there a press release made expressing Canada's outrage at this stifling of free speech and abuse of human rights?



No, I guess not. Too bad he wasn't a priest.  Lots of condemnation there, but nothing for Asif or any other atheist.

Nope, It turns out Asif was near the point of death and was so sick they had to release him right away.  I suppose they didn't want him to die before being properly convicted of the crime of blasphemy.  He's required to attend a hearing on August 25th concerning the blasphemy charges against him.  Who knows what will happen then. All the while his life is now in very real danger.

I have serious questions for Ambassador Bennett and have said I'd write him a letter about them.  Well it turns out that Doug Thomas, President of the Secular Connexion has beat me to it and has recently released his e-mail correspondences with Bennett to his organization's members.

On July 10th he wrote this, rather more kindly-worded letter than I would have sent, to Bennett.
Dear Ambassador Bennett: 
On the "Media Room" page of the Office of Religious Freedom site, there are many references to speeches and articles by Minister John Baird in reaction to persecution of religious people around the world. 
The titles use such strong words as "condemns"in reference to statements making it clear that he has consistently spoken out against persecution of religious people. 
Is the Office of Religious Freedom taking a similar, strong stand in response to the persecution of atheists in similar situations as exemplified by articles on the home page of The International Humanist and Ethical Union Website (iheu.org)? 
I have attached a pdf copy of one of the articles for your convenience. 
I look forward to hearing from you regarding this matter 
Doug Thomas
I've posted about this "Media Room" page before and even included colourful pie charts breaking down affected religious groups who's rights the Office is standing up for.  I don't mean to keep score here or anything, but the total number of persecuted secular and atheist groups the Office is standing up for is ZERO. You know, short of actively condemning the secular groups, the Office really cannot do any worse.

Here's Bennett's response to Thomas.
Dear Mr. Thomas, 
Thank you for your email of 10 July 2013 regarding the persecution of atheists.  I have noted your concerns and I have made reference to the concerns of atheists in my public statements.  For example, in a speech in Washington, D.C. on 18 April 2013 I said that, '...religious freedom does not just mean freedom to worship. It also means freedom to study one's faith; freedom to preach it; freedom to engage in missionary activity; freedom to change one's faith and- yes-freedom to hold no religious beliefs.' 
The Government of Canada established the Office of Religious Freedom on February 19, 2013, to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief as a Canadian foreign policy priority.  As a country made up of many cultures and faiths, Canada is uniquely placed to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief worldwide.  Canada has been a strong and committed supporter of individuals' right to freedom of religion or belief. This is addressed in Section 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which explicitly states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion". 
In my public statements, I draw attention to the full range of rights associated with freedom of religion or belief.  Please see the following link for a list of statements dealing with the plight of various communities: http://www.international.gc.ca/religious_freedom-liberte_de_religion/media-room_salle-presse.aspx. 
I can assure you that the Office of Religious Freedom will continue to monitor the situation of atheist groups around the world and will take appropriate measures to promote their rights. 
Sincerely, 
Andrew P.W. Bennett, PhD
Bennett has noted our concerns and he's defended the human rights of atheists sort of like this.  I paraphrase.

"Religious freedom doesn't just mean freedom to worship (God)."

"You should also be able to study your religion."

"And preach it."

"And engage in missionary activity. "

"And to change from one faith to another faith...."

"Oh... and yeah... right... okay... sure..."

"... you should be able to hold no religious belief as well."

At least that's how it came off to me.

And he didn't bother writing any of this down anywhere. Perhaps this noble sentiment was either too self-obvious or lofty to descend upon the pages of a newspaper opinion piece or stoop to the level of an official Office of Religious Freedom statement to the media.  I mean, why demean such an idea by formalizing it into an official statement of Canada's revulsion, concern or condemnation? Best to just keep it amongst us Canadians or at dinner speeches or polite conversation with intellectuals.

The letter then launches into some kind of boiler plate response. Through the magic of cut and paste, we get the sickeningly ironic situation of the ambassador referring Thomas back to the "full range of rights associated with freedom of religion or belief." Which is to say, he refers Thomas back to the very same press release page Thomas pointed out to him. A page that contains nothing but support for the freedom of religion or belief and no support whatsoever for atheists having their human rights trampled by governments or groups under the aegis of religion. Well played, Mr. Bennett.

Then, much like a letter I received from Baird, Bennett assures that he will continue to monitor the situation of atheist groups around the world. Sorry, Mr Bennett, that post is already filled by other atheist and human rights groups around the world. I certainly hope you will take appropriate measures to promote their rights that don't involve doing nothing whatsoever or else, I dare say, the Office really isn't really all that useful at all.

Later, Thomas responded to Bennett's letter.
Dear Ambassador Bennett, 
Thank you for your in-depth reply to my email of July 10. Your references to the idea that freedom of religion includes the freedom to hold no religion are reassuring as is your statement of assurance that your office "will continue to monitor the situation with atheist groups around the world and take appropriate measures to promote their rights." 
I do have a concern with the notion of monitoring the situation of atheist groups. Since atheism is repressed in much of the world to some degree or another, and illegal in eleven countries, atheist groups are often non-existent, or difficult to contact. Individual atheists are the targets of theist regimes and religious extremists who are supported, tacitly or otherwise, by those regimes. Individual cases may be the appropriate targets in this environment. 
In this, I am reassured that in your April 18, Washington statement, you included the freedom to "engage in missionary activity." Given your assurances that protection of non-belief is included in your mandate and intent, I look forward to your comments on the case of Asif Mohiuddin, imprisoned in Bangladesh on April 3rd for writing an openly atheist blog after he was viciously attacked with a machete by Islamist extremists. Such a blog is the atheist equivalent of "missionary work" and as such should be a part of your office's mandate. 
Details of Asif's arrested and detainment, including a copy of his final blog are available at the International Humanist and Ethical Union website http://iheu.org/article-categories/general-news and other case information is available at http://iheu.org/article-categories/action-alert. 
I hope this information is useful to you in your continued work on behalf of inclusive human rights and look forward to any action you can take on behalf of atheists in peril. 
Sincerely, 
Doug Thomas
Well, it's a noble attempt. I hope Bennett will respond with something a little more substantive than his last answer.  I'm not holding my breath.

And I'm not assured by Bennett monitoring the situation at all. For me it's no more than code word for doing nothing at all. (This is already being done free of taxpayer money by other organizations.)

Surely, it's the ones monitoring the situation with the tools and resources to do something who are the most guilty when they do nothing at all.

Here's what Bennett and his Office should do. I'd be one proud Canadian if they did.
  1. Declare unambiguously that, like religious belief, holding no religious belief is a universal human right.
  2. Publicly and officially condemn any government, group or individual who persecutes other individuals or groups because of their lack of religious faith.
  3. Urge the Canadian government to offer asylum and refugee status in Canada to all those like Asif Mohiuddin (and their spouses and any children) who are under immediate physical threat.
Of course this will never happen.

Perhaps Asif Mohiuddin would be wise to flee his country like fellow Bangladeshi blogger Sharif Ahmed did. He is now hoping to receive refugee status in Canada. Both men were nearly killed for being openly atheist.

As for the Office of Religious Freedom. I think that by its very nature it is flawed. Its mission parameters are so narrow that it cannot do anything but protect religious interests around the globe. It is not a truly human rights oriented organization but rather a religious (right?) rights organization that strives to defend and promote religion and the religious.  When it comes to the non-religious being persecuted and killed in the name of religion, it will be forever mute because it is simply not set up to hold the interests of both the religious and non-religious in the same hand.

The only equivalent for secular agency was Rights and Democracy (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development), which was scrapped by John Baird's government only to be replaced by the ORF this year by: John Baird's government.

Rights and Democracy was an independent organization that tried to advance human rights in general. The official government story is that it tore itself apart due to in-fighting and controversy. But the opposition believes it was deliberately scuttled like so many other progressive programs. Anyway, whatever happened, the government seemed pretty keen on throwing it in the trash bin rather than attempting to fix it.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Dominic LeBlanc sums up the closure of Rights and Democracy like this:
"This Conservative government has tried to use Rights and Democracy to advance its own ideological agenda. When that failed, they drove the organization into trouble and then killed it off as a 'cost-cutting' measure," he said in a print statement. 
"The Conservatives will now use the newly created Office of Religious Freedom, inside the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to advance a narrower agenda," LeBlanc's statement continued. "This office will not be arm's length."
Sadly, I don't think you'll see the Office of Religious Freedom standing up for atheists any time soon. Perhaps if the government changes.

I'll still get those e-mails out to Bennett soon.

I'd like to thank Doug Thomas over at the Secular Connexion for releasing the letter and Veronica Abbass at the Canadian Atheist for drawing my attention to them.



Children standing in front of Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda.
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2 comments:

  1. Veronica Abbass26 July 2013 at 21:24

    Great post, Godless. Thank you for the shout out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. GodlessPoutine27 July 2013 at 09:23

    Thanks! Any time, Veronica! Thanks for the information.

    ReplyDelete