Religious Freedom office receives temporary extension

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  • February 16, 2016

OTTAWA - Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett has received a temporary extension of his contract with Global Affairs Canada—at least until March 31.

“Dr. Andrew Bennett has shown remarkable ingenuity, sensitivity and competency over the past three years in serving as head of Canada's Office for Religious Freedom and we are grateful for his continued service,” said an e-mailed statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion Feb. 15. “Dr. Bennett will be staying on until at least the end of March as the Government carefully considers how best to preserve and protect all human rights, including the vital freedom of religion or belief.”

Bennett’s three-year contract was to end Feb. 19, but the mandate for the Office of Religious Freedom and its annual budget of roughly $5 million a year comes to an end in March.

The future of the Office of Religious Freedom, created by the previous Tory government, has seemed shaky in recent weeks as Dion has signaled a change in emphasis from religious freedom on its own to a greater focus on human rights in general.

In a Jan. 28 speech to the Ottawa Forum, Dion said: “As Canadians, we are driven by the principles that human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible.”

He explained the protection of human rights meant, for him, “the triumph of freedom of religion over theocracy, freedom of speech over censorship, freedom of movement over restriction and freedom of thought over fear.”

Religious leaders from a range of faiths have urged the Liberal government to retain the Office of Religious Freedom and Bennett.

The Catholic Civil Rights League added its voice those of various Muslim, Jewish and other Christian groups in a Feb. 5 letter to the Prime Minister and Dion in support of the Office of Religious Freedom.

“We are deeply concerned about suggestions that the office might be closed and that Ambassador Bennett might not be renewed. At this particular period in international affairs, Canada cannot afford an abandonment of our strong commitment to freedom of conscience and religion at home and especially pursuing that objective abroad,” wrote the League’s executive director Christian Elia. “We join with organizations representing Canadians of all faiths in seeking the renewal of the Office of Religious Freedom and its mandate.”

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