TORONTO, Canada – In an address opening an annual convention of the Knights of Columbus, the organization’s leader emphasized that the pro-life cause remains a towering priority, saying that “abortion is different” from other political issues because it involves “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale.”

Abortion, according to Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, amounts to “a legal regime that has resulted in more than 40 million deaths.”

“We need to end the political manipulation of Catholic voters by abortion advocates. It is time to end the entanglement of Catholic people with abortion killing. It is time to stop creating excuses for voting for pro-abortion politicians,” he said, repeating words he first used in 2008.

Based on Anderson’s address, delivered at the opening of the Knights’ 134th Supreme Convention in Toronto, Canada, it also seems that religious freedom, both in the United States and abroad, as well as support for Catholic families, are at the top of the organization’s to-do list.

With almost two million members worldwide and considerable resources due to a successful life insurance program boasting more than $100 billion in policies in force, the Knights are widely seen as an important force in Catholic life, and therefore their priorities are consequential.

As Anderson put it during his address on Tuesday, the Knights are the “strong right arm” of the Catholic Church.

One sign of the group’s influence is the presence of roughly 100 bishops at the August 2-4 gathering in Toronto, including ecclesiastical heavyweights such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Bishops.

In remarks for a formal dinner Tuesday night, Ouellet praised the Knights as an “extraordinary Christian fellowship.”

Another sign of favor came in a two-page message for the Supreme Convention from Pope Francis, relayed by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, in which the pontiff lauds the Knights for their “traditional support for the needs of the universal Church and, in an exemplary way, for the intentions of the Successor of Peter.”

Francis also thanked the Knights for their support of both the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last September, which he attended, and the Synod of Bishops on the family the pope staged in Rome last October.

(Crux is among the enterprises supported by the Knights, as the Knights of Columbus are its principal partner.)

“The Knights play a really important role,” said John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, who’s attending the Toronto convention.

“Their approach is always thoughtful and creative,” Garvey told Crux, citing an initiative, described on Tuesday by Anderson, to donate some 700 new ultrasound machines to crisis pregnancy centers, which Garvey called “the cleverest pro-life maneuver I have seen in 20 years.”

“What pregnant woman doesn’t want to see an ultra-sound of her child?” Garvey asked, “and what woman who does is then going to kill it?”

Anderson cited recent polling commissioned by the Knights to suggest the pro-life position is gaining ground.

A recent Marist poll commissioned by the Knights, he said, showed that a majority of Americans are against taxpayer funding of abortion, and that about 8 in 10 Americans would significantly restrict abortion.

On religious freedom, Anderson stressed that support for persecuted Christians in the Middle East is a keen concern for the Knights.

“Christians there have been tortured, murdered, enslaved and driven into exile,” Anderson said. “Many in the West wanted to look away, but we would not let them.”

Among other things, Anderson cited the lead role played by the Knights in persuading the U.S. State Department to officially designate the Islamic State-fueled assault on Christians in Iraq and Syria as a “genocide.”

“We were told by many that such a declaration was simply impossible,” he said, vowing that the breakthrough on the genocide declaration “is only the beginning.”

“Governments and the United Nations should use all of their leverage to ensure that Christians get fundamental human rights. These rights include not only freedom of religion, but also freedom of speech, and equal protection of the law,” Anderson said.

“These are rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and they should no longer be denied to Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “The denial of equal rights to Christians is the breeding ground of genocide, and it must stop.”

At one stage during his address, Anderson asked the bishops and clergy from the Middle East present at the convention to stand, drawing a strong standing ovation from the roughly 2,500 Knights and invited guests in attendance.

On the domestic front, one way the Knights signaled their support for religious freedom issues was by presenting their Gaudium et Spes award to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order of nuns whose resistance to the contraception mandates imposed by the Obama administration as part of health care reform recently went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Although we never would have chosen to become the public face of conscientious objection to the HHS mandate, we felt compelled to take a stand for the sake of the elderly residents we serve,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, referring to the order’s traditional mission of caring for the elderly.

“Our only desire has been to ensure that we will be able to continue to care for the elderly poor with dignity and love,” Maguire said in receiving the award, presented during the Knights’ gala “States Dinner” in Toronto’s Allsteam Centre.

“We are so proud of the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Anderson said in his opening address earlier in the day, and took a swipe at others who have not been as vocal in their support by paraphrasing a well-known line the Shakespeare play Henry V.

“There are other gentlemen, who – when the courage of the Little Sisters is remembered –will hold their manhoods cheap that they refused to stand with the Little Sisters of the Poor,” he said.

The Knights of Columbus filed a brief on their behalf when the order’s challenge to the contraception mandates reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and also helped fund the attorneys from the Becket Fund who defended them.

On the family, Anderson described a Knights-sponsored program launched last year called “Building the Domestic Church: The Family Fully Alive,” which involves monthly themes, meditations, scripture readings, and activities intended to support family life.

“The Knights of Columbus is one of the most family-centered Catholic men’s organizations in the world,” Anderson said.

Garvey suggested the priorities laid out by Anderson shouldn’t come as a revelation.

“Life, faith and family is really what the Church is about, so I don’t think it’s very surprising that’s what the Knights are about too,” he said.