Groups representing Jews, Muslims, Christians and others are urging Canada’s new Liberal government to renew the country’s Office of Religious Freedom and the position of ambassador for religious freedom, which is set to expire at the end of March.
Andrew Bennett, a Catholic professor, has served as the country’s ambassador for religious freedom since its inception in 2013. His tenure was set to expire Feb. 18, but Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion extended it to March 31, according to National Post.
That gives the government time to weigh “how best to preserve and protect all human rights, including the vital freedom of religion or belief,” said Dion, one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet ministers.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative, promised to create the office while campaigning in 2011, CBC reported. His government opened the Office of Religious Freedom on Feb. 19, 2013, with a mandate to protect and advocate for threatened religious minorities, “oppose religious hatred and intolerance,” and promote pluralism and tolerance abroad.
In January, Dion noted religious freedom was not “disconnected” from other human rights, fueling concerns the office would be eliminated and prompting letters from a Catholic rights organization, an evangelical organization, and the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim representatives also signed on to the CIJA letter.
The organizations argued that as persecution of religious minorities increases globally, the office remains necessary. CIJA’s letter praised the office for “raising our country’s profile as a world leader in human rights promotion on the international stage” and for its aid to persecuted groups.
“Now, more than ever, Canada ought to present a strong voice for religious freedoms globally,” said Christian Domenic Elia, executive director of Canada’s Catholic Civil Rights League. “I say this as we are witnessing particularly gruesome acts of violence against Christians in Iraq, Syria, and other places in the Middle East and Africa. Elsewhere, where less blood is being shed, worshippers nonetheless cannot practice their faith in the open and all of this is appalling.”
But even with Bennett’s temporary extension, concerns remain.
“I will choose to be optimistic, but unfortunately there have been too many indications from high-ranking members of the current federal Liberal government and their aides, that the Office of Religious Freedom will indeed be closed down,” Elia said. “Still, I welcome at least the longer period that organizations like ours, the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL), will have in order to lobby for its renewal.”
Elia’s skepticism stems from the “more radical secularism being espoused by the Trudeau government and their view that religious beliefs or beliefs informed by religion ought not to share space in the public square …”
Still, the ambassador’s temporary extension “encouraged” Bruce J. Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
“The government has not confirmed they were renewing the mandate and recent government statements were interpreted by many to indicate that the government was planning to close the office,” Clemenger said. “Perhaps this extension signals that they are still considering a renewed mandate. At the very least, they recognize the importance of having an ambassador to run the office until a final decision is made.”
Canada’s fight over its religious freedom office mirrors last year’s battle in the United States over its religious freedom ambassador. U.S. lawmakers reauthorized the office without making proposed changes many believed would lead to the post’s eventual demise.