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February 28, 2011

Perhaps the only way the work done by KAIROS, the Canadian ecumenical social action coalition, would receive much public attention would be for it to be the subject of a federal political controversy. The organization has worked in relative obscurity for decades despite significant funding from the Catholic bishops and religious orders, mainline Protestant churches and the federal government.

But when International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda ham-handedly doctored an already-signed document approving continued funding for KAIROS by adding the word "not," the organization was pushed to the centre of national debate.

There are various reasons the federal government might not want to fund KAIROS. Unlike Ottawa's recent stand, it supports independent Palestinian and Israeli states. But so does the Holy See and, if Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is consistent in his denouncement of KAIROS as anti-Semitic, he would also have to apply that comment to recent popes.

Closer to home, KAIROS two years ago led a tour of national Church leaders to the Alberta tarsands, which led to conclusions contrary to the enthusiastic boosterism of the Alberta and federal governments.

Indeed, KAIROS has, at home and abroad, raised ethical concerns on poverty, corporate responsibility, community empowerment and resource extraction that might make Canadian policy-makers uncomfortable.

Perhaps deciding that it should not fund an organization whose public stands are at variance with its own, the federal organization eliminated its $7 million (over four years) of funding for KAIROS foreign aid projects. We do not know if this is the reason for the cut since no one in Ottawa has explained it.

However, KAIROS' advocacy against federal policies is nothing new. It did not start with the election of the current Conservative government. Yet, previous governments funded all manner of groups that advocated on behalf of people on the margins of society.

The question that needs to be asked now is, 'Has Ottawa taken a stand specifically against Church-based groups that advocate for social justice?'

This question arises not only out of the KAIROS funding cut but also out of Kenney's intemperate lambasting of the Canadian Catholic bishops and their Ottawa staff for opposing his anti-human smuggling bill (WCR, Dec. 13). Kenney's comments at that time revealed his belief that Canada's bishops are ignorant toadies of "ideological bureaucrats" in their national office.

The question Canadian churchgoers ought to take more seriously than Oda's indiscreet "not" is whether one of the most powerful ministers in the Harper government is using his position to carry out an ideological agenda of undercutting the social justice advocacy of Canadian churches.