Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Fight for Religious Freedom, Tolerance 'Central Battle' in Middle East: Blair

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Fight for Religious Freedom, Tolerance 'Central Battle' in Middle East: Blair

Article excerpt

Blair, Baird meet to talk Middle East peace

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OTTAWA - Former British prime minister Tony Blair gave his personal blessing Wednesday to two controversial pillars of the Harper's government's foreign policy -- a new religious freedom office and its handling of the Middle East.

Blair lauded the government for setting up an Office of Religious Freedom in the Foreign Affairs Department -- a decision that has exposed the government to criticism from rights groups and political opponents.

And in a rebuke of critics who say the Conservatives have tilted too far towards Israel, Blair heaped praise on Canada -- and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, personally -- for what he called a huge and immense contribution towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The effusive endorsements from the respected international statesman came during a visit to Ottawa, where he said the fight for religious freedom and tolerance is the "central battle" being waged in the Middle East.

Blair is now the Middle East peace envoy for the so-called Quartet, which was set up a decade ago to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It's comprised of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia.

He's also the founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, his post-political enterprise that builds on his devout Christianity. Blair converted to Catholicism from the Anglican church after serving as prime minister.

Blair made it clear that he sees a powerful connection between his two jobs, and that he's happy Canada sees the world as he does.

"This issue is central ... I think the very fact that Canada's taken the step to have an Office of Religious Freedom is a great sign," Blair said in a speech to diplomats, religious leaders and public servants at Foreign Affairs headquarters that was hosted by Canada's new religious freedom ambassador, Andrew Bennett.

"I think it shows leadership from Canada. And Canada, by the way, in many ways is a perfect place from which to promote this ideal because of the complexion of the country. …

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