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S. Harper: Address to World Summit 2022, Session 6

Address to World Summit
February 11-13, 2022


Greetings once again to all distinguished guests and delegates. This session of Think Tank 2022 is focused on Diplomacy, Security, and the Role of Religious Freedom. My thanks once again to the Universal Peace Federation for sponsoring this dialogue.

Today, I want to focus my remarks on the role that religious freedom must play in our grand objective, the peaceful re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Let us begin by reminding ourselves that the Republic of Korea has never sought the re-unification of the peninsula through force. It has been focussed on the progress of its citizens, not military conquest. But the DPRK has sought military conquest, not only through the war of 1950-1953, but through its relentless development of military capabilities, at literally all cost to its citizens, over many decades.

This difference in the fundamental priorities of the two states stems directly from the fundamentally different nature of their systems. The Republic of Korea is, of course, a democracy, while the DPRK is a totalitarian dictatorship. In one, power is exercised in a limited way for limited periods, through electoral choices and peaceful transitions. In the other, power is absolute, total, permanent, and a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, such a system is far more likely to produce militarism and external aggression.

That is one reason why the leaders of my generation, the generation following the Cold War, sought to encourage and advance democratic governance in the world. But, when I became prime minister, back in 2006, it had also become apparent that just holding elections was not sufficient to establish democracy, that so-called “nation-building” in prospective new democracies was failing.

So, in Canada we asked, what can be done to establish the culture and conditions for democracy to take root?

There are many factors, but we decided to focus our efforts on two. One was the advancement of the social status and legal rights of women, which I’ll set aside for another day. The other was the entrenchment of freedom of religion.

In the long history of our own democratic development, the Anglo-American history of which Canada is broadly a part, it became clear that you cannot have democracy and broader human rights if there is no religious freedom. Quite simply, if there is a single political viewpoint, ascribed to God by the state, then it’s hard to imagine how democratic debate can ever flourish. For this reason, my government established the office of religious freedom. In doing so, we enjoyed the strong support of organizations across all major faith groups. We established the office to press for the protection of the rights of minority religious communities around the world.

I’m sad to say that my successors abolished the office. I’m not quite sure what reasons they ever really articulated for doing so, but I am certainly aware of the argument used by many who opposed the office in the first place. They said, we should pursue not “freedom of religion,” but “freedom from religion.”

Now, of course, it is a religious right to not have a personal religion, but “freedom from religion” is an entirely different concept. It is true that religion can be extreme, and in its extreme forms has often led to violence and conflict. We can see an example of that today, in the theocratic regime in Iran, in its hateful ideology, in its financing of regional terrorism, and in its apocalyptic pursuit of nuclear weapons. But it is not only religion that can be extreme. It is the lack of religion that can also be extreme. For while it is certainly undemocratic and dangerous to negate all other political viewpoints by claiming to speak for God, it is equally undemocratic and dangerous to claim that one can negate all other political viewpoints in the name of a mere human being, not because he speaks for God, but because, in rejecting all religion, he declares himself to be the equivalent of God.

Now that may sound bizarre, but this is not some theoretical construct. This notion is in fact at the heart of the totalitarian socialist societies of the modern age. It has been the personal creed of the leaders of communism, fascism, and their variants. And it is the poison in the soul of today’s North Korea. I am not just speaking about the manner in which its current leader, Kim Jong-Un, claims and exercises god-like absolute powers of life and death over others. I am also talking about the legacy of its founder, Kim Il-Sung. In the DPRK, Kim Il-Sung remains today, in law, and I quote, “the eternal president of the republic,” as if a man can become powerful enough to actually will his own afterlife.

So, my friends, freedom of religion, properly understood, is the rejection of both religious extremism and of anti-religious extremism. And this freedom is the very lifeblood of human rights in the body of a democracy. Freedom of religion is the reminder that, by being conceived in God’s image, we are important, and that, because we are not God, there must be limits on our power.

During this pandemic, we have had a shining example of the importance of freedom of religion. The agreements between Israel and four Arab states, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, is, by any measure, the most hopeful thing that has happened to humanity in the past two years. That those accords were framed in the common Abrahamic roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, only underscores the importance of religious freedom to the process of peace. Of course, I don’t have to explain the importance of this to the Universal Peace Federation. Your embrace of religious freedom and your commitment to interfaith dialogue in the pursuit of peace have been fundamental to all your activities from the beginning. And you have always included that faith side of your work in your outreach to the people of the North. I can only urge you to continue to do so.

In my faith, we say that when dealing with evil in the world, be “as gentle as a dove and as wise as a serpent.” And, personally, I cannot think of a better perspective through which to pursue the peaceful re-unification of the Korean peninsula.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts, and God bless you in your work.

Merci beaucoup



To go to the World Summit 2022 Schedule page, click here.