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Lots of work for Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom

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The Harper government is about to create a new Office of Religious Freedom, designed to champion religious freedom around the world. For those who have questioned, especially in a time of deep austerity, the need for such an office, activities within and among the world's three great monotheistic religions during the recent Holy Days -- in order of birth Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- provide a ready answer. There is much work for Canada to do.

In the United States, for example, large numbers of conservative Catholics and evangelicals joined forces in a search for an appropriate Republican candidate to take on Barack Obama, an alien Muslim from Kenya. God-fearing Republicans of all denominations cheered for capital punishment (the more the merrier), applauded the possibility that a man without health insurance might die and booed a gay soldier serving his nation in Iraq.

Across the Middle East and throughout immigrant communities in Western Europe, many Sunni and Shiite Muslims united in embracing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated anti-Semitic document that invented a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world and for generations was treated as gospel by many Christians regardless of denomination.

In Israel, Jews across the vast spectrum of Judaism, from the most secular to the ultra-orthodox, came together in a determination never to recognize the just rights of the Palestinian people.

It is true, however, that such welcome signs of unity have not been the entire story of the season. In fact, one might say that faith-driven conflict has had a very creative few weeks.

In the little town of Bethlehem, rival Christian monks engaged in extreme broom-fighting over the vexed question of which sect controlled which parts of a church built over a site where Jesus might have been born. One of Christianity's holiest churches, it's shared by three Christian denominations -- Roman Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox -- who disagree on certain crucial doctrinal matters best known to themselves.

According to the news reports, it was during the cleaning of this sacred place to make it Christmas-worthy that "the fight erupted between Greek and Armenian clergy, with both sides accusing each other of encroaching on parts of the church to which they lay claim. The fight erupted between monks along the border of their respective areas. Some shouted and hurled brooms. Palestinian security forces rushed in to break up the melee and no serious injuries were reported." The Palestinian security officers who saved these saintly brothers from each other, were, of course Muslims. But as all three faiths agree, G-d moves in mysterious ways, if He moves at all.

Not far away, a group of ultra-orthodox Jewish men were taking a break from their Talmud study -- they don't work -- long enough to terrify and harass an 8-year-old girl on her way to school by spitting on her and calling her a "whore." Naama Margolese is in Grade 2, goes to a religious Jewish all-girls school, belongs to an Orthodox Jewish family, but was dressing too "immodestly" for these pious protectors of all that is noble about Judaism. "When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache I was so scared that they would start yelling and spitting," she said. These ultra-orthodox Jews, who share many sacred tenets with Iranian ayatollahs and the Taliban, compare their ordeal to that of victims of Hitler's concentration camps and call the Jewish police officers who attempt to protect the children "Nazis."

Two ultra-orthodox political parties serve as key members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government. They are also thought to be among those looking hopefully to Canada's nascent Office of Religious Freedom to vigorously defend their right to spit freely on little girls.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the legacy of American neo-con triumphalism continues to wreak havoc and mayhem on innocent Iraqis. A number of devout Iraqi Muslims spent much of the festive season denouncing and murdering each other in substantial numbers. Under Saddam's tyranny, his own minority Sunni Arabs and the majority Shia communities were forced to live in enforced tolerance. Now both branches of Islam send suicide bombers against each other. All is not fraternal division, however. The two join as one in righteous hostility to the country's Kurds, Sunni Muslims who are not Arabs.

In Nigeria, once my home away from home, the holy season was celebrated with deadly Christmas Day bombings carried out by an Islamist sect known as Boko Haram who may actually be mere gangsters instead of religious fanatics. Northern Muslims (or, possibly, southern Protestant criminals dressed as northern Muslims) are bombing Christian church-goers, while good Christians are retaliating with their own violence and promising much more: tit-for-tat trumping turning the other cheek. Nigerian politicians of all faiths enthusiastically exploit these attacks for their own purposes, while the country's real villains remain, as always, poverty, hopelessness, elite venality, military and police violence, and unprincipled multinational corporations.

In Canada, extremist Jews -- the Jewish Defence League -- openly make common cause with British racists -- the English Defence League -- against Muslims. [See "A racist marriage of convenience."] At the same time, European racists have traded in their traditional anti-Semitism for a more fashionable hatred of Muslims to become ardent supporters of the state of Israel where politicians and settlers welcome them warmly. Similarly, in both the United States and Canada, conservative Christians and conservative politicians find common cause in their undying theological devotion to the state of Israel even though many evangelicals expect all Jews either to convert or to perish horribly when the Messiah comes, possibly in late April. Apocalypse soon.

All in all, we can say that religion continues to thrive much as it has for millennia, meaning Canada's Office of Religious Freedom will have to hit the ground running. In Arizona, after all, where a gunman murdered six people and wounded congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others exactly one year ago, a local gun club in December offered families, including children, a chance to pose with Santa while holding AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers.

Seriously, without Stephen Harper, John Baird and Jason Kenney, what chance do broom-toting monks really have?

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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