A little while back, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made headlines for his comments on the persecution (or lack thereof) of Christians in the West. Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable, he said. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country [the United Kingdom] or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers. I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiotsperish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.
It’s perhaps best the Most Rev. Williams restricted his comments to the United Kingdom and the United States, because the threat of religious persecution in Canada just got a whole lot more real. The Province of Quebec is planning to pass a law which would ban public sector employees from wearing religious symbols, including such things as turbans, crucifixes, hijabs, and kippas. And it’s not just for government representatives: it would apply to all public institutions, including schools and hospitals. That’s right: teachers, doctors, and nurses, among numerous other workers, would all be forbidden from wearing religious symbols on the job. Don’t like it? Find another job.
It’s all part of the proposed Charter of Quebec Values. Indeed, Premier Pauline Marois says the plan reflects universal values and will bring Quebecers together.
Shockingly, some members of the universal human race have disagreed that it’s their values on display here. The philosopher Charles Taylor (who once oversaw the province’s commission on the accommodation of minorities) expressed disbelief at the announcement. It’s unprecedented, he told Radio-Canada . This will feed an attitude of exclusion, he said, calling it something more akin to Putin’s Russia than Canada.
For his part, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has condemned the upcoming legislation, likening it on Wednesday to the segregation Martin Luther King fought against in his timethough in this case it’s segregation based on religion rather than race. People are going to have to choose between their freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, Trudeau warned, and their economic well-being and their acceptance in the workplace.
Regrettably, the Prime Minister (Conservative) and the Official Leader of the Opposition (NDP) have been much more reserved in their criticisms of the charter. What is needed is clear and public condemnation of Quebec’s plan to strip Canadians of their religious freedom. What has been offered instead has been meek disapproval. Trudeau expressed it well : The careful politics that my NDP and Conservative counterparts are playing is irresponsible. He isn’t wrong. But it’s more than irresponsible: it’s morally reprehensible.
Sadly, the Conservatives and NDP have good political reason to lay low: the proposed Charter of Quebec Values has a remarkable (and frightening) amount of support among average Canadians. A recent poll found that 42% of Canadians approve Quebec’s plan. In Quebec, a full 58% of citizens approve the proposed charter. Canadians like to pride themselves on their tolerant approach to people of other cultures; we’re a cultural mosaic, we like to say, not a melting pot like our American neighbours. But you’d never guess that based on this poll.
Shortly after saying Westerners need to grow up and stop claiming they’re the victims of religious persecution, former Archbishop Rowan Williams apologized in a letter to The Guardian : In suggesting that some people need to ‘grow up’ before talking about the persecution of Christians in the UK or US, he wrote, I had in mind those who offer what I think unduly sensationalised accounts of the situationand, to a lesser extent, those in the public eye who have to put up with a certain amount of routine attack. I realise in retrospect, he explained, how offensive the words might sound to those who suffer bullying for their convictions or whose faith presents them with real and painful dilemmas in their professional lives. I want to make it clear that I’d regard urging such people to ‘grow up’ as insulting and insensitive to a degree, and apologise for giving any impression to that effect.
The Most Rev. Williams is right: some Westerners shout about religious persecution when they are merely being insulted. But there are indeed some in the West who face very real persecution. In Quebec, believers may well be about to face the type of real and painful dilemmas in their professional lives the Most Rev. Williams has in mind. In the French lyrics of Canada’s national anthem, we speak of being ready to carry the cross. The Province of Quebec seems intent on putting that readiness to the test.
It’s words from the English version of our anthem, though, that I’ll be meditating on over the next little while. Near the end, we sing: God keep our land, glorious and free. That’s the prayer I’ll be praying as this charter of values is brought forward by the Quebec government. I ask all readers to make it their prayer too.