Canada Shuts Down Religious Freedom Office; USCIRF Says It's 'Unfortunate' Message to Send World

(Photo:Facebook/Canada's Office of Religious Freedom)Inaugural meeting of the External Advisory Committee.(From L to R): Minister Rob Nicholson, Andrew Bennett, Canada's Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Corinne Box of the Bahá'í Community of Canada and Malik Talib, president of the Aga Khan Council for Canada.

Canada's Office of Religious Freedom was effectively shut down last month after that country's new liberal government decided not to renew the mandate of the office.

The office was established in 2013 to promote and protect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, as an important part of Canada's constructive leadership in the world.

"Discrimination against religious and belief communities, as with all forms of discrimination, causes human suffering, spreads division, and contributes to a climate of fear, intolerance, and stigmatization. Canada has made recognition of and respect for diversity a priority, both at home and abroad," noted the website of the office.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion confirmed at a global affairs conference last Tuesday that the office was done according to The Globe and Mail.

During a speech at the University of Ottawa a week earlier he said the new government would be looking to address the issue of religious freedom through different means.

"Our government shares the same conviction as the previous government, but it assesses the consequences of its chosen method of promoting this conviction differently. I am referring to freedom of religion or belief, which we will defend tooth and nail, but not through the office that the Harper government specifically set up for this purpose," said Dion.

The mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom expired on March 31.

Two weeks ago the Conservative Party of Canada tabled a motion in the House of Commons to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom. The Liberals, according to The Globe and Mail, voted against the motion and it was defeated 225 to 90.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for the office, Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, who was appointed by the Conservatives in 2013, accepted a position as a senior fellow at Cardus, a leading Christian think tank prior to the motion.

Bennett's three-year term at the office was originally set to end in February, but it was extended by the Liberals to March 31 to coincide with the expiration of the office's mandate and $5-million in annual funding.

Katrina Lantos Swett, commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told WORLD News Service that shutting down the office is an "unfortunate" message to send to the world.

"We now have one less strong partner and one less voice for religious freedom," Swett said. "This is a very unfortunate message to send out to the rest of the world at this time."

Phil Horgan, president of Canada's Catholic Civil Rights League, agreed.

"That office was punching above its weight," Horgan told Baptist Press. "The decision by the Liberals to effectively shut it down in favor of, well, nothing, is rather disappointing."

Swett and Horgan praised Bennett's work at the office and noted that Canada will no longer have a focal point for international religious issues or someone to send to engage in foreign talks.

"Religious freedom deserves unique focus, particularly in this time in history," Bruce Clemenger, president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada told Baptist Press. "We lost an important capacity today."

Official speech of the Office of Religious Freedom

I proposed a motion in the House of Commons to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom. Here is my full speech, explaining the work of the office and why it matters. We spent a full day debating my motion. I will be posting more highlights from that debate soon.

Posted by Garnett Genuis on Monday, April 4, 2016
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