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U.S. senator wants Canada on religious freedom watch list over pastor COVID arrests: Says expects religious crackdown in Communist China, not in western nation like Canada

EDMONTON – A U.S. senator wants Canada investigated for violating religious freedom following the arrests of Alberta pastors accused of breaking COVID-19 restrictions.

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked on Thursday that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom put Canada on its special watch list.

“I am troubled that our Canadian neighbours are effectively being forced to gather in secret, undisclosed locations to exercise their basic freedom to worship,” Hawley wrote in a letter.

Frankly, I would expect this sort of religious crackdown in Communist China, not in a prominent western nation like Canada.

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley

“Frankly, I would expect this sort of religious crackdown in Communist China, not in a prominent western nation like Canada.”

In his letter Hawley mentions the arrests of Alberta Pastors James Coates and Tim Stephens.

Coates spent a month in the Edmonton Remand Centre after violating a bail condition not to hold church services officials claimed were ignoring COVID-19 measures on capacity limits, physical distancing and masking. Coates was released March 22 after pleading guilty and fined $1,500.

Coates is a pastor at GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove and has said provincial regulations meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 infringed on his congregants’ constitutional right to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly.

But a Canadian judge ruled his religious freedoms under the Charter weren’t violated.

Stephens, of Fairview Baptist Church, is still in remand after being arrested last week for holding an outdoor service that officials said broke public health orders. Alberta Health Services had Calgary Police arrest Stephens to stop him from holding services.

In a prepared statement, lawyer Jay Cameron of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom who represents Stephens accused Alberta Health Services of being “engaged in an intentional act of public deception and abuse of authority in arresting pastor Stephens and others.”

The U.S. commission has three requirements to declare a country oppresses religious freedom. The oppression must be systematic, ongoing and egregious. Countries already on the list include Turkey, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Cuba.

Earlier this month, in a rare show of bipartisan solidarity the US Senate came together June 9 to pass legislation aimed at strengthening Washington’s hand against China. The U.S. Senate passed the Bill in a 68 to 32 vote, which forces the Biden administration to outline its plans for working with allies on China-related issues.

The portion of the Bill that deals with Canada is called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. The White House has 90 days to publish a strategy explaining where they agree and disagree with Canada on China issues. 

The bill focuses on issues surrounding the Trudeau government’s relationship with China including the spread of China’s authoritarian government trade, cyber-security, Huawei, 5G networks, mineral resources, defence, and organized crime.

READ MORE: U.S. lawmakers pass Bill investigating Trudeau government’s relationship with China

In May Alberta ordered four universities to suspend pursuing partnerships with individuals or organizations linked to the Chinese government, citing national security concerns and the risk that the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses, reported The Globe and Mail.

The order affects the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge and Athabasca University.

Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education, Demetrios Nicolaides, has also requested that the boards of governors at these universities prepare reports within 90 days detailing all agreements, research relationships, institutional relationships and joint ventures with anything connected to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Nicolaides has also asked for details on the “scope and scale” of all university ties to Chinese companies, government agencies or institutions.

READ MORE: Alberta orders major universities to suspend pursuit of new partnerships with China