Fight for religious freedom, tolerance ‘central battle’ in Middle East: Tony Blair

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.”

Blair said religious freedom has to be equated with all other human rights — something that critics of the new Canadian office have objected to in the past.

“All over the Middle East, all over the region, I think there is one central battle that is going on,” Blair told an earlier joint news conference with Baird.

“And that is between the open-minded people who want societies that are tolerant and respectful and promote religious freedom, and those who are close-minded and who don’t like people who are different, and want to impose a certain view of religion on society — which is very damaging.”

Blair met earlier with Baird and emerged to publicly endorse Canada as a vital player in the peace process, citing its economic support of the Palestinian Authority.

Blair appeared to rebut the view that Canada has lost ground with Arab and Muslim countries because of its unwavering support of Israel.

“I know from the meetings we’ve had out in the region, and also what people in the region say, the position of Canada today is immensely important and has been hugely constructive in trying to bring the right type of politics and the right type of future for the regions,” Blair said.

“Mr. Baird, personally, and the Canadian government have really played an immensely constructive part in this, in the past few months particularly as we’ve re-launched the process.”

Baird recently pledged to extend Canadian aid to the Palestinians, calling it some of the best development money the country has ever spent. He and the visiting Palestinian foreign minister, Riad al-Malki, exchanged warm words last month in hopes of healing old wounds.

With the Israelis and the Palestinians embarking on new peace talks amid internal skepticism from inside both camps, Canada’s continued political support is valuable, Blair said.

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