News that a Senate Committee wants government to oversee “the training and certification of imams” is disappointing but not, perhaps, surprising. No one denies the need for government to take steps to protect people from the threat of terrorist-inspired violence; but that goal, as important as it is, does not justify curtailing the religious freedoms of Canadians. And let us be clear, government authorizing who can and cannot serve as clergy is a clear infringement of religious rights.
The sentiment that government should take a firmer hand in reining in religion has been growing in Canada for some time, and it’s an ideology that is showing up across the political spectrum (though the targets of this “reining in” tend to differ depending on one’s political affiliation). Religious believers are being increasingly stigmatized in Canadian society. And if religion cannot be made to disappear altogether, then it seems some Canadians want the ability to vet which are allowed to be heard (or even seen) in public.
Contrary to the suggestion made in a recent National Post editorial, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence did not propose that government intervene to certify or establish a registry of Islamic or other clerics.
The carefully crafted recommendation asks that “the federal government work with the provinces and the Muslim communities to investigate the options that are available for the training and certification of imams in Canada.”
This is a very important distinction because the recommendation is made in response to testimony from members of the Muslim community as well as experts who confirmed that radicalization begins with person-to-person or person to group contact.
The witnesses who appeared before the committee over the past nine months continuously brought up the fact that radicalizing messages mixed with religious ideology was being advocated by some foreign-trained imams in Canada.
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- Selection processes respect individual member communities' rights to appoint their own chaplains while requiring, at minimum, that prospective candidates submit a police background check.
- Campus oversight committees retain the right to ensure chaplain activities conform to human rights legislation and workplace standards. A chaplain may be reprimanded, censured and/or dismissed if found to be in violation of an institution's policies.
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Let's face it, not all religious leaders and teachers are created equal. Some communities require their priests or ministers to have advanced degrees and clinical pastoral education training typically involving no less than a Masters level degree or equivalent from an accredited educational institution. Other religious communities merely require two years training at a junior or "Bible" college. Some communities are organized at the civic, regional, national and international levels and they have high public exposure. Others are organized solely at the civic level and/or may be dangerously clandestine and cult like. Some have well defined procedures to ensure accountability; others not so much. Is it not reasonable to suggest that prospective religious leaders be subject to rigorous psychological prescreening and ongoing psychological, moral and spiritual assessment during and after educational and seminary formation? Some badly behaved people will slip through and wreak havoc upon individuals and a community. Without training standards and assessment procedures, most appropriately enacted by religious communities themselves, additional abusers would inevitably slip through.
- Governments should not interfere with religious communities' rights to train and appoint their own leaders. A Canadian religious commissar such as one finds in the People's Republic of China seems to be a rather obvious bad idea meriting immediate rejection.
- Religious education institutions from which leaders graduate should be accredited according to well defined national standards.