Strike Canada's Blasphemy Law as a Sign of Good Faith

Article excerpt

Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week launched the Office of Religious Freedom, a new branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs, to promote religious tolerance internationally. He appointed Toronto academic Andrew Bennett its "ambassador," and repeatedly underlined religious persecution is an urgent and ongoing global problem.

Harper has said the idea for the new branch arose, in part, from his meeting with Pakistan's late minister for minorities, Shahbaz Batti, shortly before his murder by Islamic extremists in March 2011.

Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, was sprayed with bullets while being driven through a residential district of Islamabad. The group that carried out the fatal attack, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, labelled him a "known blasphemer."

Bhatti was an outspoken advocate of the separation of church and state. He'd publicly criticized Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law as promoting intolerance of religious minorities. He knew he was courting assassination by speaking out against the law and had predicted his own violent death.

Harper was genuinely angered by Bhatti's death. When Bhatti was gunned down, our prime minister ditched diplomatic platitudes for plain English, and called the killers "gutless." He also spearheaded the House of Commons motion that condemned the murder and offered condolences to Bhatti's family.

But if the prime minister truly wishes to honour Bhatti's legacy, he'd best start at home -- by repealing Canada's own archaic blasphemy law.

Blasphemy laws, in general, are a bad idea. Western democracies normally disdain them because they're so ripe for abuse. Mixing legal authority with religious belief is a time-honoured recipe for injustice.

In Third World countries, they're often employed by religious majorities to arrest, imprison and prosecute religious minorities. Bhatti's Pakistan is typical. Majority Sunni Muslims have used blasphemy laws to punish Shiite Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians, for no other reason than their beliefs.

Canada, unlike most western nations, has a blasphemy law. Canada's Criminal Code includes a crime of blasphemy that not only mixes church and state, but also favours one faith over all others. To boot, it's badly drafted and dangerously vague. …