Showing posts with label oorf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label oorf. Show all posts

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Canada Office of Religious Freedom Ambassador Officially Condemns Saudi Treatment of Raif Badawi

Jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.
Just today, I ended my last post about how jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi will receive public lashings just for blogging stuff -- likely in a matter of hours now -- like this:
I've been very frustrated with our government's apparent blindness to the monstrous human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps they will not be able to ignore the problem now.
I most recently expressed this frustration and pessimism in a previous post about how CFI Canada and Humanist Canada met with Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) ambassador Andrew Bennett in December.
However, I cannot help but remain skeptical and disappointed in the Office. It still seems to me like they're hardly even trying. When it comes to people (not philosophies) being in peril for their lack of religious belief across this globe, it really seems to be that groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Atheist Alliance International, International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Center For Inquiry are superior human rights watchdogs and are more effective at engaging people over social media.
Well, it looks like they've finally done something they've never done before! They're finally denouncing Saudi Arabia's treatment of Raif!
Canada Denounces Flogging of Saudi Activist

January 8, 2015 - Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, today issued the following statement:

“I am greatly concerned by reports that Saudi human rights activist Raif Badawi will tomorrow begin facing a punishment of 1,000 lashes, along with a 10-year prison sentence, for exercising his right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

“The public flogging outside a mosque in Jeddah each week for 20 weeks, with 50 lashes administered on each occasion, is a gross violation of human dignity, which I strongly denounce.

“Canada strongly upholds the fundamental freedoms of freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of association, among other inalienable human rights, as a basis on which society is established, thrives and progresses.

“The punishment being administered to Mr. Badawi is inhumane and is unbecoming of a society which seeks to advance itself within the family of nations. Such advancement must be predicated on respect for freedom of religion and other fundamental human rights. May clemency and mercy be shown in this case.”
It seems like multiple human rights groups have had to climb mountains to get to this point. This part is unfortunate, but Andrew Bennett has gone a ways to redeem himself in my eyes. It's literally the last minute, but I suppose there could have been other efforts going on behind the scenes and now they're going public because those have gone nowhere -- well, I'd like to believe that at least.


GREAT work, Mr. Bennett!

I'm also thinking that CFI Canada and Humanist Canada may have had something to do with this as well. They clearly explained the issues to Bennett back in December.

If you would like to speak up for Badawi, I would strongly recommend you call the Saudi embassy of your country directly. Here are instructions about how to do this here in Canada (bottom).

You should also consult the Amnesty International page on Badawi for more information about how to help!

- Thanks to Canadian Atheist's Veronica Abbass for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

CFI & Humanist Canada: Yey! ORF: Meh.

From left to right: Eric Adriaans, Kevin Smith, Andrew Bennett, Eric Thomas.
In April 2013, I posted about how CFI Canada representatives finally got to meet with Ambassador Andrew Bennett from a newly-created Office of Religious Freedom (ORF). It seemed like the government organization only agreed to meet begrudgingly, after some media pressure -- it was like going to meet the Wizard. I was still happy to see the meeting, but couldn't help but be skeptical.
It's just that I cannot help but be highly skeptical and pessimistic about this.  Actions speak louder than words and I won't take them seriously until they make a stand.  I have a hard time accepting that this office was oblivious to the IHEU report for example. What kind of international policy office on religion could have missed that?  And why did they not consult with atheist or even Muslim groups during their formative stages.
After that meeting, there was a general sense that the office was doing nothing substantial to help atheists and non-religious people. Although I do not have the link, I can recall a challenge made to Bennett to demonstrate his support for human rights of atheists and agnostics by speaking out against Saudi Arabia's horrific treatment of blogger Raif Badawi. We waited and, other than a few muffled whispers and nods, none seemed to come.

Well, on December 22nd, there was another meeting between the ORF's Andrew Bennett, Eric Adriaans and Kevin Smith from CFI Canada, and Eric Thomas from Humanist Canada.

I'm happy the CFI covered this on their site, because I see precious nothing at all on the ORF's press release page or on Bennett's Twitter feed! But then, this has been the story all along and nobody would expect the ORF to break decorum by going out of character.

So, is this new office doing anything at all to help non-religious people deal with persecution? I must now try to suspend the years of disappointments and look at the results as objectively as possible.

The CFI press release points out that Bennett has offered his support of their work. They are highlighting some bright points:
Since that meeting, CFIC has been pleased to observe Ambassador Bennett’s support of CFI’s work to support Raif Badawi at the United Nations Human Rights Council (CFI Transnational’s Michael DeDora advocacy work of June 2014) as well as his comments on the subject of freedom from religion
Allow me to give credit where credit is due.  CFI did a really great job chastising Saudi Arabia for their horrible disregard for human rights and for their inhumane torture of Raif Badawi. In fact, I think they did an even better job than John Baird or Andrew Bennett.

No wait, we got this tweet:
Yes comrades, I am not impressed. If this is progress, then may I please have my part of the office's 5M budget back so I can donate it to Amnesty International?

Oh, and no press release on the official page, of course. Furthermore, it wasn't even a protest against the Saudi government for their treatment of Raif. Technically, it was Bennett being proud that another Canadian defended the right of the Centre for Inquiry to speak out for Raif. Feel free to follow the trail of indirections on your own. Scribble it out on napkin with a graph, if you want clarity.

Doing a quick survey of Bennett's Twitter feed, I found a couple of retweets of Michael De Dora -- who is doing visible work -- as well (one, two). That's pretty good, I guess. I've been known to retweet other people's stuff too. Only takes a click.

Bennett has also seductively dangled supportive generalizations at the end of paragraphs as well. I'm afraid that I've already been unimpressed with his comments in the United Church Observer.
If we don’t have religious freedom in society, it’s very hard to also have freedom of expression, freedom of association. All these different human rights are linked together. When we look at freedom of religion, it’s the freedom to openly — publicly or privately — profess your faith. It’s the freedom to engage in public worship in peace and security. It’s the freedom to engage in missionary activity. And here’s the real acid test: does a country allow people to freely convert to another faith? Conversely, does it not force them to change their faith? There must also be an understanding that people should be able to not have religious faith.

Interview with the United Church Observer from 09.2014
He did say this during comments at a Toronto area talk, though. So I cannot fault him completely -- this was good. Too bad it was the comments to some speech and not an official press release or a television interview or in a major newspaper or a blurb on his website. Demanding aren't I?
In an obvious sense, the immediate objective for much of our advocacy work is to speak the truth about the plight of individuals and persecuted religious groups, to help build support for efforts that will alleviate their suffering. Including those persecuted for the choice not to adhere to a religious belief or to openly disagree with the established belief.
To be fair, he also said something similar in another speech in Warsaw. I guess this is good, but who actually sees any of this? You really need to dig and it doesn't help that his website seems not to mention any of this at all.

The CFI release points out that Bennett does believe in freedom to believe in a non-religious philosophy. Although, he seems to miss the point that for many people in this world -- including many people in North America who are literally recovering from religion  -- that people must have freedom from religion.
Ambassador Bennett informed us that he believes “freedom of religion must incorporate the freedom to not have a religious belief,” and while he does not believe in freedom from religion, does feel that people must have “the freedom to embrace a non-religious set of beliefs or philosophy.”
I'm not sure what to make of that. For those of us who have had religion crammed down our throats in our youth and see religion as a net positive harm for the world, freedom from religion is essential. It's actually something not to be dismissed -- many of us were indoctrinated as children and much of our lives were spent actively fighting for our own freedom from our childhood religions.

Here are the topics covered in the meeting.

  • ORF’s “The Religious Freedom Fund”
  • ORF’s duty to speak out against all faith-based discrimination, harassment, torture and human rights violations
  • Canada’s Blasphemy law (Criminal Code Section 296) and its symbolic relationship to blasphemy laws in other states (the blasphemy law is a domestic matter not within the purview of the ORF)
  • CFI Canada’s project to respond to international atheists seeking our support in repressive regimes
  • Work that CFI, HC and ORF can do together to provide education on freedom from religion

Good for the CFI and Humanist Canada. These are all worthy and they are the right groups to discuss it. If the ORF helped out with any of these, we may get concrete results.
Eric Adriaans, National Executive Director of CFI Canada said, “This was an important and constructive meeting. As educational charities and the leading voices for Canada’s atheist, secular humanist and humanist community – we must do all that we can to develop relationships within our movement and with government agencies such as the Office of Religious Freedom to ensure that our community is not left out.  Ambassador Bennett continues to work with us toward concrete outcomes from our working relationship.  I look forward to the work we will do together to ensure that the human rights of non-believer minorities are defended as rigorously as religious minorities.”
Still waiting for those concrete outcomes! Still waiting!

I understand that it makes more sense to build bridges than walls. So, I praise the CFI and Humanist Canada for meeting with the Office of Religious Freedom. It's also nice that Andrew Bennett has accepted another meeting.

However, I cannot help but remain skeptical and disappointed in the Office. It still seems to me like they're hardly even trying. When it comes to people (not philosophies) being in peril for their lack of religious belief across this globe, it really seems to be that groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Atheist Alliance International, International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Center For Inquiry are superior human rights watchdogs and are more effective at engaging people over social media.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Conservative Government 'Cherry-Picking' Syrian Refugees Based on Religion

A cloudy day at the Canadian Parliament. By Monocletophat123 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
There's a controversy that's been brewing in Ottawa about the Conservative government's response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, and it's not just their incredibly delayed response.

Conservatives’ Syria refugee response labelled as ‘discrimination’

It seems like our government declared that they favor refugees certain religious persuasions. I'll give you one guess which religion is not being discriminated against. Did you guess Christian?
Facing questions from the NDP in the House of Commons on Friday, the parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration was unapologetic when he confirmed religious minorities, who have fled Syria’s brutal civil war and the spread of the militant group ISIS, will be the first priority when it comes to bringing Syrian refugees to Canada.
Remember, this is the government that brought us a special agency (ORF) just to stick up for the rights of religious people. So far, they've only muttered hollow promises about protecting anyone who is not religious. In fact, the minister of Foreign Affairs has even come out saying atheists do not deserve their human rights to be protected as much as religious people. Well, it appears that the wrong religion also is unworthy.

When it comes to Syria, statements like the above imply that the government will be biased against people of the majority Muslim religion.
Sunni Muslims account for nearly three-quarters of all Syrians, according to the CIA Factbook, while other Muslim groups such as Shias, Alawis and Ismailis represent another 16 per cent of the population. Christians and a small number of Jews represent the remaining 10 per cent.

“Obviously that continues to linger as the concern here,” said Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve. “That this in some way, shape or form is about the fact that the majority of refugees fleeing Syria are Muslim.”
This goes to show just how divisive bringing religion into selection criteria for refugees can be! NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar -- to whom I've written about the ORF before -- pointed out the danger of bringing religion into this situation well.
“The barrel bombs that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has been dropping do not discriminate whether you’re Sunni, Shia, Christian or another ethnic group,” NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar said Friday. So the question is, why is this government discriminating when it comes to Syrian refugees?”
The UN has even echoed this sentiment. Religion should not be brought into this at all!
But the United Nations has resisted Canada’s request, as its policy is to help the most vulnerable, no matter their religious background. This includes families led by women, torture victims and those with serious medical conditions.
Truth be said, it's normal procedure for Canada to let the United Nations determine who is most at risk. So who is this government trying to please?
Normally, Canada would defer, broadly, to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to identify those it feels are most vulnerable and in need of protection.
This is disgusting and it's tarnishing our reputation internationally as well. It makes us look like a nation of petty religious bigots. Of course these minorities are at risk, but so are many others. Is one life worth more than another simply because of which metaphysics they believe?
Religious and ethnic minorities aren’t the only groups the UN deems to be at risk. Any Syrian, Sunnis included, can be at risk if he or she opposes the Damascus government, its armed foes or the Islamic State jihadists, depending on where the person lives. Anyone who opposes Sharia law in areas under extremist control is at risk. So are women, children, journalists, human rights activists and many others. It’s a long list.
You can add atheists to that list as well, I'm sure. You can bet your last dollar that this government and their Office of Religious Freedoms will not lift a finger to help.

Can we vote these people out, please?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Office of Religious Freedom Trivializes Human Rights Violations Against Atheists Again

Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett (source)
You know, I really ought to give up on Andrew Bennett and the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom. They've not once stood up for a single persecuted atheist -- even when asked very nicely by CFI Canada. Although actually getting to the Office was apparently not unlike going to see the Wizard.

Bennett looks like a nice enough person to me -- the kind of person I'd likely enjoy conversing with. Really, he looks like a great guy and I really don't want to keep writing these posts. It's just that things like this recent interview with Bennett keep falling into my Google Alerts.
Q Should Canadians with no religious beliefs care about religious freedom?

A Absolutely. If we don’t have religious freedom in society, it’s very hard to also have freedom of expression, freedom of association. All these different human rights are linked together. When we look at freedom of religion, it’s the freedom to openly — publicly or privately — profess your faith. It’s the freedom to engage in public worship in peace and security. It’s the freedom to engage in missionary activity. And here’s the real acid test: does a country allow people to freely convert to another faith? Conversely, does it not force them to change their faith?

There must also be an understanding that people should be able to not have religious faith. But the vast majority of people in the world who are suffering as a result of the denial of religious freedom are people of faith. 
What am I supposed to make of this? Is there no time in Bennett's schedule to simply issue a single statement on the Office's website condemning the obvious human rights violations being made by places like Saudi Arabia against atheists there? The Media Room site seems to have roughly one release per month. Surely, someone there could find some time to fit a little something in.

And they're not very long either. Here's a sample.
Ambassador Bennett Concerned by the Shooting of an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan
May 24, 2014 - Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, today issued the following statement:

“I was sincerely shocked and appalled to learn of the death of Khalil Ahmad, who was shot while in police custody in the Sheikhupura district in Pakistan on May 16, at the age of 65. He was being held on charges of alleged blasphemy.

“In Pakistan, hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered for their faith and beliefs, and thousands arrested for declaring Islam to be their faith.

“This is only the latest event in a long series of violent attacks on individuals who are accused, often falsely, under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.

“Canada strongly denounces such violence and we call for Pakistani authorities to ensure the personal safety of other Ahmadis associated with Mr. Ahmad who were also charged with alleged blasphemy.

“On behalf of the Government of Canada and Canadians, I extend my prayers and sincere condolences to the family and friends of the late Khalil Ahmad.”
This is tragic and I can understand why Bennett would release a statement like this. However, I don't see why he wasn't also be shocked and repelled by the brutal hacking to death of atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider last year in Bangladesh. Randy Tyson from Legion of Reason posted this long letter addressed to him over at their Facebook page, just in case they missed it -- but I'm pretty sure they have people to keep track of these things.

Could Bennett or perhaps a staffer -- or hell I'll write the thing and let him proofread it! -- have possibly spared a half hour to whip a little something up for any atheist in trouble anywhere?
But the vast majority of people in the world who are suffering as a result of the denial of religious freedom are people of faith. 
I wonder how Christian it is to prioritize like this? Oh, no I need to check myself -- as I am not aware of all the bureaucracy involved with issuing the equivalent of a two paragraph statement onto an HTML web page. Perhaps they should switch to Blogger or Wordpress? I guess within the Canadian Government this could be a major feat. Who knows.

Oh, and by the way, there was a report released last year by IHEU about widespread systematic human rights abuses, oppression and violence against atheists across the world. It demonstrates the dire consequences that await hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands... perhaps millions(?) of people who question religion across the planet publicly. People are not stupid. They understand their situation; that at the hands of oppressive cultures of dogmatic authority, people really do get beaten, slashed or murdered by those interested in silencing any questioning of religious dogma.

Really, how could Bennett know what's in the hearts and minds of atheists across the world if they cannot ever hope to freely express themselves without being persecuted or killed?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Saudi Government Arrests Atheists Over Video

Well, perhaps ever since that article in Salon pointing out that atheists do exist in the Saudi Arabia and are perhaps increasing in number, the government has been setting up to do a good old-fashioned fascist-style theocratic purge of the non-believers.

First there was the declaration from the government of Saudi Arabia that atheists are terrorists. Then just last week, the Saudi religious police, the ghoulish 1984-style 'Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice' (Haia) called for the arrests of atheist bloggers.

Well,  now they've started their campaign of terror and human rights violations publicly for the world to see -- and I expect no nation to do anything at all meaningful to stop them. Don't expect our Office of Religious Freedom to do anything either. Afterall, it's not the religious who are lacking any freedom in this equation, but instead it has ultimate authority to do all that it pleases with those who have no religion. Something I've learned is that if you have no religion than the Office of Religious Freedom has no interest whatsoever in your freedom.

Guidance methods questioned after atheism clip surfaces

As far as I can tell, this is actually two videos. I'm uncertain about anything more since, naturally, none of the news sites I have found actually link to the videos themselves -- heresy.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice arrested several people for blasphemous remarks against God and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) after a videoclip on atheism went viral on a popular social networking site.
No word on who has been arrested and what the conditions are for them. Nothing showing us what was actually posted. If anyone could get me this information (without getting arrested) I would be interested.

The rest of the article goes into a talk about how education needs to be improved to counter a recent wave of atheism due to social media. A member of the  Ministry of Forced Indoctrination & Mind Control Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia has this sage advice.
Shutting down websites that spread atheism is not the only way to address the core issue, said Al-Ghaith.

“Authorities, however, must then intervene and shut these sites down when people disseminate inflammatory and inaccurate information across Twitter and other social networking sites.”

“That said, the first step to dealing with the issue is investigating and trying to understand the perspective of atheists,” he said. “We cannot change opinions by force.”

“We should focus on equipping our youth with knowledge and understanding rather than just forcing them to memorize facts because they would not do them any good when trying to impact others.”
Naturally, the first step in understanding the perspective of atheists is to shut down all their websites, tear down their videos, round them up and throw them into jail. I suppose this is meaningful ecuemenical dialogue Saudi-style. Isn't it interesting how only the authorities in charge can have access to these ideas and not the general public. I suppose it's like toxic waste to them or kryptonite?

And they certainly do seem to be using force to try to change opinions, aren't they?

The article includes a few more interesting points.
“Atheism is not a phenomenon in the Gulf or in Arab countries,” he said. “Atheists deny the existence of God altogether, while non-religious individuals may believe in God, but not practice everyday rituals.”
Essentially, he is saying that many of these so-called atheists are really disillusioned non-practicing Muslims. Okay, whatever keeps them out of jail, I suppose. I wonder what causes this sort of turn off to religion in Saudi Arabia?
“People who have grown up with strict rules may eventually associate religion with oppression and deny its existence altogether,” he said.
Oh, you mean like having an entire religious police force that goes around banning roses on Valentines day and arresting people for expressing doubt in religion on their blogs? You mean like that sort of thing?
“Qur’anic verses revealed to infidels and hypocrites are taken out of context, resulting in dire intellectual clashes,” he added. “We must spread the message of Islam through moderation and tolerance.”
Where to begin? You can start by disbanding the religious police and releasing the arrested bloggers. No really, you go first.

I'll leave you with one of the comments on the article.
There's nothing like the irony of trying to prove atheists are wrong about the oppression of religion - by arresting them and thus proving that they absolutely correct that religion is oppressive. In other words, the misconceptions are starkly obvious - and it isn't the atheists who have the misconceptions.
It would be hilarious if it weren't so twisted and sad.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Canada Keeps Mum On Saudi Human Rights Record With Cheque In Hand

The Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV III) is built by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (source)
Yesterday, the Canadian representative at the UN Human Rights Council Meeting echoed the statement of the US representative; that the CFI should be allowed to speak of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia regardless of how embarrassed or in denial the Saudi representatives were.

Although I will admit that I was pleasantly surprised, I really shouldn't have been. It is the duty of each of the members of that group to defend the free and open expression of ideas; namely, free speech. To not do this would be the height of hypocrisy. They would be no better than Saudi Arabia, which either refuses to admit their human rights violations or perhaps has no clue what human rights even mean. Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder.

I was also surprised today to find this refreshing tweet from Office of Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett.

He did good with that tweet.

However, it's really not enough. The Canadian representative -- what's his name? -- was acting in his professional capacity and representing his country officially. That was Canada's position.

I've been pretty rough on Bennett over the years because although he seems to promise that his agency will defend the freedoms of atheists alongside those of the religious, I have yet to find any direct evidence of this. My last post on this pretty much sums up my feelings that we're completely on our own - the Office of Religious Freedom seems to only be interested in protecting the rights of the religious, our Minister of Foreign Affairs doesn't seem to believe atheists require protecting and there is no special human rights agency for non-religious people.

So is this tweet progress? Well, perhaps a little, but it's still just a tweet. Is it the position of Canada or just Bennett's personal opinion? It certainly carries none of the weight of an official press release. The Office of Religious Freedom make quite a few releases; several a month. You'll find zero releases defending atheists.

So why the silence about Raif Badawi? What with his wife and children here in Canada already? Why doesn't Canada denounce Saudi Arabia officially? I'll don my tinfoil hat here for a moment.

Look, I'm not saying it's the entire reason, but there is this armored vehicle contract with Saudi Arabia that was won recently. It's only the largest in Canada's history. It's gigantic.

Largest Advanced Manufacturing Export Win in Canada’s History
February 14, 2014 - London, Ontario - Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada

The Honourable Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade, and Danny Deep, Vice President, General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, announced today a historic multi-billion dollar contract win for vehicles and associated equipment, training and support services.

The announcement was made in London, Ontario, where the light armoured vehicles will be designed and manufactured and which will become the epicentre of a cross-Canada supply chain directly benefiting more than 500 local Canadian firms.

This 14-year contract will create and sustain more than 3,000 jobs each year in Canada, with southern Ontario accounting for approximately 40 percent of the supply base.

Facilitated by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), the Government of Canada’s international government-to-government contracting organization, the contract is with Saudi Arabia, a priority market under the government’s new Global Markets Action Plan.
Aww... A multi-billion dollar "Valentines Day gift" from human-rights-crushing Saudi Arabia to the Harper Government(tm) and General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada. I wonder if the police in the kingdom will use the armoured vehicles to crush their own population in future protests?

I'm sorry, I forgot to specify which kingdom I was referring to. I mean the one in the Middle East, not in Ottawa. Easy mistake, I know.

So perhaps by next Valentines Day, the Saudi religious police can use these vehicles to dramatically crash into florist shops and wrench flowers and chocolates away from terrified people who wish to make gifts to their loved ones -- or perhaps just use the guns to blow them to pieces? The LAV III -- brochure here -- comes with a M242 Bushmaster 25mm cannon, a secondary C6 7.62mm co-axial machine gun along with supplementary Mag58 turret top MG in swing mount and 76mm smoke grenade dischargers. That last item seems like it would be great for riot dispersal and the brochure promises great Supportability and affordability.

Speaking of affordability, just how many are we talking about? A CBC story covering this back in February lets us know the deal is a paltry $10,000,000,000 USD. I suppose a cheque like that would make anyone think twice before upsetting the client with little concerns about the human rights of their population. Oh, and if you're American, don't think you can get off easily -- the contract is actually a US-Saudi deal that involves Canadian manufacturing plants in Ontario.
Neither the Canadian government nor GDLS has been so far willing to say how many of the sophisticated weapons systems will be built for the government of Saudi Arabia, but a $10-billion US deal could buy many hundreds of vehicles.
Isn't that great? But I'm certain that a country with a human rights record with Saudi Arabia would never dream to turn armoured vehicles on their own population.
"Saudi Arabia stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens in 2013," the report said.

"Authorities continued to violate the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls and nine million foreign workers ... As in past years, authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention."

Saudi Arabia permits beheading and stoning as forms of criminal punishment for murder and rape, alongside social crimes such as adultery. Homosexual acts are also punishable by death, flogging and imprisonment, as is drug use. Saudi Arabia is also regularly condemned for its treatment of women, who will earn the right to vote in 2015, but who will still be disallowed from driving cars — or armoured vehicles, for that matter. 
Is there a direct connection with Raif Badawi? Probably not, but there could be a general sort of blanket policy that ruffling Saudi feathers is bad for business. Or perhaps it's all a big coincidence. But isn't money amazing?

I'm waiting for Andrew Bennett or John Baird to prove me wrong.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Raif Badawi's Wife & Children In Canada: Amnesty International Canada Ask Government to Act

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been sentence to 1,000 lashes and 70,000 fine for writing things on the Internet.
It turns out that there is an important Canadian connection to jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children fled Saudi Arabia six months ago and live only a short drive away from me in Sherbrooke, Quebec! Now she and Amnesty International Canada are asking for the Canadian Government's help.

Quebec woman's jailed Saudi husband faces whipping
Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children fled Saudi Arabia for Lebanon because of threats to their safety prior to Badawi’s arrest.

She and her children came to Canada six months ago and now live in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said Haidar’s arrival in Quebec has attracted Canadian interest in her husband, whom Neve calls a prisoner of conscience.

“It gives us now a much stronger connection to the case and certainly has really motivated Amnesty activists, particularly in Quebec,” Neve told CBC News.

So far, however, that interest is not moving the Canadian government to take stronger action in defence of Badawi, Neve said.
Again, where is the Office of Religion Freedom on this one? Or, as I stated before, are we on our own? Remember Pussy Riot singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova? She even had permanent residence in Canada which got her absolutely nothing from Canada in way of protection. What an enormous disappointment our government is. If you need to dig your way out of any similar situations in the future in hostile foreign lands, the best you can probably hope for is the Canadian government sending you your own shovel.

I'm not holding my breath, but we should try to at least get Badawi's plight somewhere on this list of official condemnations and concerns over at the Office of Religious Freedom. We did get a promise of sorts that they are just as concerned about violations against atheists. Perhaps we could get a backroom whisper?

If you tweet then contact Ambassador Andrew Bennett @FreedomReligion, Foreign Minister John Baird @HonJohnBaird and the Office of Religious Freedom's Facebook Page. Use the hashtag #FreeBadawi and #FreeRaif.

Also, make noise. Write into media outlets -- especially in Quebec. I say this because within secular Quebec higher level officials may take up the mantle for Badawi. They might also see it as an opportunity to beat the Federal government over the head as well -- often a popular sport here in Quebec.

More news on this as it develops!

(Above post appeared early this morning on social media. It appears to be his kids)

Monday, 26 May 2014

It Really Feels Like We're On Our Own

Veronica over at Canadian Atheist posted recently about a new appeal to Andrew Bennett at our Office of Religious Freedom and John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi had his original ludicrous sentence of 7.25 years and 600 lashes upped to an uber ludicrous 10 years, 1000 lashes and one million ryals (about $290,000 CDN) back in December. His crime? He blogged something - like me. By now I probably deserve to be eaten alive by wild dogs if I lived in Saudi Arabia.

Atheist Freethinkers, here in Quebec, made this press release on the 23rd of May.
Montreal, 23rd May 2014 — Atheist Freethinkers (LPA-AFT), an association which promotes secularism and supports the rights of atheists, asks the Honourable John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, to demand that the government of Saudi Arabia release the blogger Raif Badawi who is currently imprisoned in that country for the “crime” of insulting Islam. Mr. Badawi was given an initial sentence of 7.25 years and 600 lashes, but that punishment was increased recently to 10 years, 1000 lashes and one million ryals (about $290,000 CDN).

Raif Badawi is the creator of the web site Free Saudi Liberals through which he peacefully expressed his opinions. He is accused of being a threat to general security, of failing to be obedient as he criticized certain religious authorities, and of violating Islamic values. In the past, Mr. Badawi had already faced accusations of apostasy for which Saudi Arabia, as well as several other majority-Muslim countries, apply the death penalty.

This new punishment for a so-called “crime” is not only draconian but itself constitutes a crime against freedom of conscience – not only that of Mr. Badawi but also the freedom of conscience of all Saudis.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia recently raised international outrage by adopting a series of laws which designate atheism as a form of “terrorism” and stipulate severe penalties, sometimes even death. It is now a criminal act in that country to visit an atheist web site or communicate with an atheist organization.
The association LPA-AFT thus joins the appeal launched by the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT), of which it is an affiliate, for the release of Raif Badawi and for the respect of freedom of conscience in Saudi Arabia. We ask Minister Baird to make it known to the Saudi government that its policy in this matter is unacceptable and that complete respect for freedom of conscience – including the freedom to apostatize – is a fundamental condition of the rule of law.
Well, we all know what John Baird thinks of atheist persecution abroad. It would seem that he denies it even exists!

We've had weak and pathetic promises from Andrew Bennett and this Office of Religious Freedom as well. Nothing even coming close to an official statement, of course. I've blogged about it for a long time and have grown thoroughly jaded about the ORF. To be honest, I am rather nauseous these days whenever I think of this.

So, after time and time again of demanding this from our government, I can see they're really not interested at all in the plight of atheists. They're plenty interested in the plight of the religious because, as far as I can tell, the Conservatives are deeply invested in keeping a certain base demographic happy here. Maybe if we ever vote them out...

It really does feel like we're on our own here. I can see the CFI and other organizations are doing their best to build awareness. I wonder if billboards or full-paged newspaper ads would help? Serious, people. We need to take to the streets because the government is not our friend when it comes to this. But I realize everyone is very busy and I would be a hypocrite to point my fingers at people when I'm not putting my feet to the pavement myself.

Well, do take a look at Veronica's post. Once I get over my ORF-induced funk, I'll see what I can do and I'm sure it's something. We owe it to Raif because we're all on our own.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Did the Office of Religious Freedom Stand Up For Another "Mysterious Atheist?"

Well... maayyyyyybeeee.... Okay, I seriously doubt it.

So I just gave a listen to the CBC Sunday Edition panel discuss The Public God. You can find a good review of the discussion by Spencer Lucas, who attended the taping of the discussion over at the Canadian Atheist. I think everyone might be a little too hard on Gretta Vosper - she was outnumbered, but maybe I'm just a softy. I hold organizer Michael Enright responsible.

The Public God: Hour One & Two (MP3)

Editor's Note 2014-04-24: Well, mysteriously this link now points to a completely different episode and the crappy online player at the episode site isn't loading. Maybe I'll find another source.

Editor's Note 2014-04-24: The podcast is still available over at Stitcher. Who knows for how long.

Well, I have many things to say about the discussion. Perhaps my biggest problem with it was not ever really being sure who was saying what. Such is radio.

Then there was this, which really got stuck in my craw. The discussion went to the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom - a cause strongly supported by panelist Janet Buckingham Epp but widely criticized by non-religious everywhere.

Sole atheist panelist Gretta Vosper brought up a point that I've been making for months now about the Office. Why are they not speaking out in support of atheists and agnostics who are being persecuted in the name of religion? They promised they would, well, sort of.

So, Vosper asked the question and I was surprised to hear this answer from Fr. de Souza (I think it was him).
Vosper: Did they say anything about Fazil Say, an atheist, world-renowned pianist who was imprisoned for ten months in Turkey for blogging something about anti-religion? Did they say anything about that? 
de Souza: They did. our office, the Canadian office, they did, yeah.
Now here's what I hear: 'Oh yeah. Sure. Of course they did. Could you stop slagging my beloved Office of Religious Freedom and can we move on to something else?'

This would be the second microscopic trace of support from the Office for atheists. This one follows another one; a second tiny ethereal wisp of something apparently just as immaterial as de Souza's god. It sort of got thrown in during similar circumstances, as a sort of dismissal in an awkward moment.

Andrew Bennett made it back in February.
Bennett maintains that freedom from religion is also a human right to be defended, and he has spoken out for an atheist blogger in Kazakhstan.
In my post about this, I theorised it may have been Aleksandr Kharlamov. 

That, like this, would be huge for our community if it were actually proven to be true.  If there was any public statement on by the Office or anywhere at all for that matter to back it up.

More quiet noncommittal rumours, but it's not like this Office sits idle doing nothing at all. It seems to release official statements defending religious clergy and communities in peril nearly weekly.

I'm not suggesting they stop doing this, but it would be nice to get a mention - a mention, a single mention.  They alway seem to keep these covert murmurings defending atheists behind closed doors. Is de Souza privy to top secret international affairs information?

Perhaps the Office really is playing for their (political) base; the conservative Christian right. That too was a charge leveled in the course of this panel discussion.

So I'm asking Fr. Raymond de Souza to please provide the references for his statement so I, the CFI and fellow atheists and secularists can begin to celebrate this good work of the Office of Religious Freedom. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Canadian Office of Religious Freedom Defends Atheist Blogger!... Discreetly... Shhhhh...

Scientists are studying public signs of the support now and the search continues for any other mention of this on the ORF
website and across the Internet. (source)

The Toronto Star has a feature on Andrew Bennett and the newish Office of Religious Freedom.

LINK: Meet Canada’s defender of the faiths

Defender of the faiths? Well, coming from someone who would like to discourage faith - the belief in anything for no good reason - as much as possible, this title is not all that encouraging. But it turns out the Office does work to help religious people around the world. When it comes to helping people, I'm all for this!

That's why this section of the article, a challenge from Canadian Secular Alliance's Justin Trottier, caught my attention. Here he is making the case for my people who are being persecuted around the world for their lack of faith by those who do violence in the name of their faith.
“We’ve been pushing (the Office of Religious Freedom) to defend apostates who have left religion, people who are atheists in countries where they face the death penalty,” says Justin Trottier of the Canadian Secular Alliance. “Other than flowery language about their stand on atheism they haven’t done anything to back up their claims.”
I've brought this up many many times before. While Andrew Bennett has told us Canadians several times that it is also his mission to protect atheists across the world, I have seen zero actual press releases and official condemnation by the Office of the treatment of atheists around the world.

So then the article author throws in this statement by Bennett.
Bennett maintains that freedom from religion is also a human right to be defended, and he has spoken out for an atheist blogger in Kazakhstan.
Holy smokes! Really! This is huge! What did I miss?

Well, that's it. Just that. Not a single peep about this anywhere else on the ORF's website, anywhere. Google: nothing. 

I'm guessing he's here talking about Aleksandr Kharlamov, who's incarceration at a mental hospital for merely publicly saying he's an atheist drew the criticism from the ORF's US counterpart, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2013. 

As for the ORF? Well, apparently not in public; just behind closed doors.

Oh and, as far as I can tell, Kharlamov is still on trial for being a terrorist.

I find it interesting that this information should come out apparently purely in response to a CSA statement by Justin Trottier and not posted to the ORF's well-maintained media release page.

Or perhaps the ambassador is shy to speak out in public because of strong forces that keep the Conservatives in power?
“You have to see it as the Conservatives looking to build a winning coalition that can deliver a majority,” says Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research. “I believe the strategy is to rely on the core support of fiscally conservative voters, and graft on top of that special issue and interest groups, which could be faith or culturally based.”
Yes, I can see how support of atheists might upset the base.

Look, I know diplomacy can probably be a very opaque thing. So who knows what the office may be doing in the background for imprisoned atheists?  However, it does seem interesting and frustrating to me that the Office has taken public stand after public stand - nearly weekly - against the persecution of the religious leaving atheists like me grabbing at microscopic crumbs of action like these.

I'm glad the Office is formally condemning awful abuses of human rights against religious people; don't get me wrong. But why is it that defending human rights violations against atheists seems to involve discreet whispers off camera and off record? Are we dirty goods?

Scientists have yet to confirm what exactly this last diplomatic move of support for atheists is. I seems small and mysterious; and the search goes on to discover others.

Monday, 9 December 2013

CFI's Michael De Dora & The Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

Michael De Dora (source)
While catching up on my podcasts, I ran into an interesting interview on Ask an Atheist with Michael De Dora, the director for CFI’s Office of Public Policy from November 24th.

Towards the end of the interview, Becky brought up the minor yet significant progress CFI Canada has made getting our Office of Religious Freedom to acknowledge the plight of atheists in countries where merely outing yourself can result in jail time or death.

I had to transcribe this the best I could. So please , if you can, listen to the original (at 33:33) and let me know if I made any substantial errors.
I coordinate with the people up in Canada. And actually it's very important that we coordinate on issues like that. When Canada announced it was launching this Office of International Religious Freedom and the director would be Andrew Bennett, one of the first things we did is we coordinated and CFI Canada sent up a letter to Andrew Bennett and said, "Hey, you're the new director and we're the largest Secular Humanist and skeptic group in Canada. We think that we should have a meeting with you to talk about some of our concerns." And he granted that meeting and they had a meeting with him. 
Now the great thing about that was that this was not just a one-off experience. What ended up happening is several months later, the NGO committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which I mentioned before -- it's  an NGO committee CFI belongs to -- I'm the secretary of the committee and Matt Cherry is the president he's the IHEU representative. We then invited Andrew Bennett down to come to New York to have a meeting with our committee. And we ended up setting something up at the Canadian Mission across the street from the UN. 
And I met Andrew Bennett at the event and I said, "I'm Michael De Dora from the Center for Inquiry," and he said "Oh yeah, the Centre for Inquiry, I met those people up in Canada. I love you guys. It was a great meeting. We should definitely keep in touch and I'd like to work you going forward." 
And so, what we've actually been able to do now is because of our presence at the UN, even though he's the Canadian ambassador, we do have that international focus and so we've been able to coordinate with his office on some international religious freedom issues and we're hoping to do that even more going forward. The thing is, it's a little more difficult because they're not at the State Department, they're not just down the street. But because we have that international focus, it enables us to do that kind of work.
It's nice to know dialogue is continuing, because I haven't heard of any news in the media of the Office returning any calls from secularists since the last time CFI Canada met with them. These meetings with CFI in New York also seem to have generated no media releases on the Office of Religious Freedoms website either.

After listening to the interview I did some digging on the CFI website and came up with this update from June 17th:
- On June 17, OPP Director Michael De Dora attended a meeting with Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett, the Ambassador for Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom. During this meeting, Dr. Bennett made it clear that this office is dedicated to defending and protecting the rights to freedom of belief and expression for all persons who face persecution, including the nonreligious. 
Better get defending then, Mr. Bennett.

No really, I see no movement by the Office whatsoever to speak out in favour of those without religion being persecuted in the name of religion. Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to see something's happening, but talk is cheap these days, isn't it? When are we going to see some action?

Friday, 25 October 2013

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova Stands Up For Her Human Rights

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (source)
Here's one of those stories that is changing so quickly and is so important to me personally that I feel that it's best to describe it quickly and urge you read for yourselves. It has to do with the ridiculous jailing and mistreatment of Pussy Riot band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

She's one of my heroes.

She and fellow band members got thrown into a penal colony (yes, those still exist in Russia) after performing an anti-Putin song in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Putin didn't like it, the clergy didn't like it. Putin and the clergy are best buddies these days.

There were calls of this being blasphemous and the Russian Orthodox Church - pals with Putin - wanted blood. Well, Tolokonnikova and her two band mates got thrown in the slammer for a two year sentence for something that ought to have gotten them nothing more than a fine.

After witnessing massive human rights violations and abuses on a daily basis, Nadezhda wrote a letter to the press documenting them that was re-published across the globe.
If you weren't Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you a long time ago," say fellow prisoners with close ties to the administration. It's true: others are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Prisoners themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them is done without the approval and full knowledge of the administration. A year ago, before I came here, a gypsy woman in the third unit was beaten to death (the third is the pressure unit where they put prisoners that need to undergo daily beatings). She died in the medical unit of PC-14. The administration was able to cover it up: the official cause of death was a stroke. In another unit, new seamstresses who couldn't keep up were undressed and forced to sew naked.
Russian prison authorities claim this is simply not so and that she is seeking attention. I tend to believe her though. She then went on a hunger strike for the next nine days until she was too weak to continue and had to be rushed to a hospital for treatment.

Since then, due to her own safety concerns and her claims of being media-gagged, she has been moved to a new prison. I believe there is still some confusion about which prison, precisely.

Her band mate, who is still in prison, decided to stay behind bars to show solidarity to Nadezhda.
Meanwhile, Tolokonnikova's bandmate Maria Alekhina has withdrawn her request to have her two-year sentence reduced in a show of solidarity for her embattled pal.
Tolokonnikova has a husband and a young child on the outside.

And here's what bothers me as an atheist and a Canadian.

Tolokonnikova is actually a Canadian permanent resident. Her husband holds dual citizenship with Canada and Russia. Back when she was first arrested and charged, some hoped the Canadian Government would condemn this sentence and request a reduced sentence. No such thing ever happened. John Baird merely gave a sort of weak and ambiguous response and nothing more was ever said. Pathetic.

Alongside heroic religious young women like Malala Yousafzai we have heroic women like Audrey Mbugua and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.  These latter two are fighting against religion-based oppression. Which Canadian organization exists to speak out for their human rights?

Well, it's obviously not the Office of Religious Freedom.

Nobody in our Foreign Affairs ministry is standing up to those who are oppressed by religions or under the pretext of blasphemy or offending religious sentiment. That's just not what our government cares about.

The ORF only exists to defend the rights of religious people, not those who cannot believe in spirits and ghosts. Atheists and Nones are on their own in the dangerous world. Regardless of what you may have heard from Andrew Bennett, this office is blind to those with no faith and this gives me no faith at all in this office.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Bangladesh Court Throws Atheist Blogger Back Into Jail For No Apparent Reason

Asif Mohiuddin
So atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin was thrown back into prison this past Monday.

The judge decided that his continued health problems - after nearly being murdered - were insufficient grounds for him to remain on bail. Meanwhile, the other bloggers who were arrested for the very same crime remain on bail.

Asif is in no condition to withstand the imminent threats to his life in prison. Perhaps this is the hidden motive of the presiding judge.

A short editorial piece in the Dhaka Tribune puts it like this:
The recent decision made by a Dhaka court to refuse blogger Asif Mohiuddin’s bail petition seems unnecessary and illogical at best, vindictive and punitive at worst.
While we do not opine here on the charges against the bloggers, and that is an issue best left to the courts, the motivation behind rejecting his bail petition is unclear to us.
“It is up to the judicial system to prove that it is absolutely necessary to keep Mohiuddin in detention. He has been suffering from major injuries ever since a knife attack in January and, although he received treatment during the month he was free, he has still not recovered. Sending him back to prison will just make his condition worse.”
I'm not sure why he stayed in Bangladesh - if he was in any position to be able to flee like fellow blogger Sharif Ahmed. But I wouldn't have held it against him in any way. If it was his decision to stay then he's very brave indeed. In any case, Canada should be doing something. It should at the very least denounce this persecution and offer some kind of asylum to Asif.

Just to put things into context here, a fellow atheist blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was found hacked to death in the streets of Dhaka.
“We also point out that bloggers are in danger in prison, that they are exposed to death threats from fellow inmates who are members of Islamist organizations such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hefazat-e-Islam.” (source)
Okay. I need to get off my lazy butt and contact Andrew Bennett over at the Office of Religious Freedom and ask him who I should be writing about this situation. Because his office is doing nothing but observing the situation. I know it is unlikely to do anything, considering: the president of Secular Connextion already wrote Bennett to no avail; secular groups protested in several cities on behalf of the Bangladeshi bloggers; and the CFI personally requested that the ORF speak out against the plight of Bangladeshi bloggers.

Yes, I know it won't do much good, but I got to do something!

I've started a fundraiser to help build classrooms on newly purchased land for the Kasese Humanist Primary School.

Please consider donating!

Build a Humanist School in Uganda!

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 ( 
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: 
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. 
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 and other case information is available at 
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. 
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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