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U.S. senator pushes to place Canada on religious freedoms watch list for Alberta pastors arrests

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EDMONTON -

A U.S. senator is asking the Commission on International Religious Freedom to place Canada on its religious freedoms watch list due to the arrests of Alberta pastors accused of breaking COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley sent a letter to the chair of the commission on Thursday asking them to consider adding Canada to the watch list since two Alberta pastors were arrested and jailed for holding worship services not complying with restrictions.

“One of the most fundamental human rights is the freedom to practice one’s faith,” Hawley wrote in the letter.

“I am writing to express my deep concern that this freedom is in peril across our nation’s northern border,” he added.

Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary was arrested twice by police, for organizing a church service violating public health orders in May and after he allegedly violated a court order and hosted an outdoor church service.

GraceLife Church, located west of Edmonton near Spruce Grove, Alta., pastor James Coates was arrested and spent a month in jail at the Edmonton Remand Centre after he was charged with violating COVID-19 restrictions as church services without masks or physical distancing continued to be organized.

Hawley named Stephens and Coates in his letter and said there were “numerous” other instances when Canadian pastors were jailed for not complying with restrictions in place during the pandemic.

“Canadian authorities’ arrest of faith leaders and seizure of church property, among other enforcement actions, appear to constitute systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedoms,” Hawley said.

The senator compared the enforcement actions taken by law enforcement and Canadian public health authorities to actions officials in China would undertake.

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

The letter was also sent to Kirsten Hillman, the Canadian ambassador to the United States.

The U.S. commission has three requirements to declare that a country oppresses religious freedom. It says the oppression must be systematic, ongoing and egregious.

Any two of those factors is enough to be placed on the special watch list. Countries already on the list include Afghanistan, Egypt, Cuba and Turkey.

A commission spokesperson said the agency is aware of Hawley's letter and is "looking into it."

A spokesman for Alberta Justice said the department could not comment on Hawley's accusations as the matters are still before the courts.

With files from The Canadian Press

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