Canada: Blow to religious freedom as government office closes

Canada's parliament voted to scrap its Office of Religious Freedom.Saffron Blaze

Canada's Office of Religious Freedom, established three years ago by the country's Conservative government, has been closed by its recently-elected Liberals.

The final decision was taken in a March 22 parliamentary vote and the office was closed on March 31.

The closure sparked criticism from supporters who claimed it marked a diminution of Canada's commitment to religious freedom and was driven by a secularist agenda.

According to the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada would fold religious rights into a broader concern for human rights. Foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion said his party would continue to defend all human rights, including the freedom of religion and belief, "tooth and nail".

"Canada will support every effort to speak out when human rights are in question or where people are being persecuted for who they are or for their beliefs, including when human rights defenders are arrested and threatened for daring to speak out against human rights," he said.

However, the decision has been condemned by churches and rights organisations. A spokeswoman for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Katrina Lantos Swett, said: "This is a very unfortunate message to send out to the rest of the world at this time."

She told Baptist Press: "Both the enemies and the friends of religious freedom will view this decision as an effort to downgrade the importance of this fundamental human right. The world is kind of on fire, as it relates to religious freedom. So the timing, in my humble opinion, couldn't be much worse."

The president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Bruce Clemenger, said: "Religious freedom deserves unique focus, particularly in this time in history." He added: "We lost an important capacity today."

Jewish groups also criticised the closure and paid tribute to the work of the office's ambassador, Andrew Bennett.

Avi Benlolo, president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, said: "In the face of continued divisiveness in our society, the Office of Religious Freedom provided a sense of inclusivity with government to many groups of numerous faiths. This is a loss for Canada and for anyone who believes in human rights and the sanctity of freedom of religion."

Michael Mostyn, CEO of B'nai Brith Canada, said the government's decision was "unfortunate."

"The Office of Religious Freedom was an important symbol to recognise the suffering and oppression so many face because of their faith," he said. "With acts of terror so often religiously motivated, now more than ever, Canada must enshrine the promotion of religious freedom as a cornerstone of its foreign policy."