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Andrew Bennett, Canada’s religious freedom ambassador, faces an uncertain future along with the Office of Religious Freedom Photo by Michael Swan

Advocates fear fate of religious freedom office under Liberals

  • November 25, 2015

OTTAWA - The fate of Andrew Bennett and the Office of Religious Freedom is up in the air as the office was not included in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Foreign Affairs Minister. Government silence has advocates for religious freedom worried about where religious freedom stands with the new Prime Minister.

A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion told CCN the Office of Religious Freedom — established by former prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government in 2013 — and the Ambassador are still in place. He pointed out the mandate letter did not get to that level of detail.

In a further query to the ministry, John Babcock, a spokesperson for the department, said in an e-mail: “The promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of Canada’s constructive leadership in the world.

“Freedom of religion or belief, including the ability to worship in peace and security, is a universal human right in accordance with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Babcock said.

But the lack of religious freedom as a priority in Dion’s mandate remains a worry.

“I was concerned about its absence,” said Peter Bhatti, chairman of International Christian Voice. “I think it should be on the agenda for foreign policy.”

Bhatti pointed to the violence that took place in France and is ongoing around the world. He had just returned from a trip to Thailand to meet with Pakistani Christians who are persecuted by Muslim extremists there.

“All around the world, people are being targeted by growing extremism,” Bhatti said. “It’s important we have the Office of Religious Freedom there so we can address these issues.

“We urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, please advise the foreign affairs minister to make sure religious freedom is part of his (portfolio),” Bhatti said. “We want it to continue.”

Human rights activist Majed El Shafie, head of One Free World International, said he was not surprised at the omission.

“Besides being disappointed, it confirmed a fear I already had,” said El Shafie, a Christian convert from Islam who experienced torture in Egypt for his conversion. Religious freedom is not on the Liberals’ minds, he said.

“The (mandate) letter was more politically correct than truthful,” said El Shafie.

“In this day and age, without mentioning what’s happening around the world to minority rights to worship and believe, it poses an absolute moral dilemma we will have with the new government.”  

El Shafie’s organization fights for persecuted religious minorities of all faiths.

The fact religious freedom is not written in the mandate letter “casts a shadow on the Religious Freedom Office and Andrew Bennett,” El Shafie said.

He speculated the Liberals might “keep the office to keep face,” but completely change the mandate to make it more “politically correct.”
“Political correctness is the main cancer in our Canadian fabric today,” El Shafie said. “I am in big fear the Liberal government will not bring the cure for this cancer.”

Constitutional lawyer and international religious freedom expert Iain Benson said he had identified a “blind spot” policy makers in Canada have in relation to religion in a report he had submitted to the federal government in 2008 entitled “Taking a Fresh Look at Religion and Public Policy.”

Benson said Western elites do not realize they have this blind spot because “their conception of culture lacks serious consideration of religion.”

The establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 partially addressed this blind spot on the international level, Benson said. “There needs to be domestic work as well.”

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