Canadian bishops are calling on the federal government to "reconsider" its decision to close the Office of Religious Freedom launched by the former Conservative government under ambassador Andrew Bennett (pictured above.)) Photo by Michael Swan

Bishops ask government to reconsider closing religious freedom office

By 
  • March 30, 2016

OTTAWA - The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked the federal government to “reconsider” its decision to close the Office of Religious Freedom.

“The Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom and the Office of Religious Freedom were an important signal to the international community and to Canadians — as well as a reminder to our civil servants and our country’s diplomats — of the singular importance of religious freedom, and of the unfortunate lack of voices in society prepared to come to its defence,” said a CCCB statement released March 24.

“Religious freedom and freedom of conscience have a pivotal status among human rights,” the statement said. “Religious freedom is more than the right of an individual to believe and pray. It equally involves a faith community’s identity as well as its interactions with society.”

The Liberal government closed the Office at the end of March, defeating a March 21 motion by the Conservatives to extend the mandate of the Office. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said the government will seek other ways “to enhance and strengthen Canada’s fight for religious freedom everywhere.”

The Office was launched by the former Conservative government in 2013 under ambassador Andrew Bennett. With a $5-million budget, Bennett was given a mandate to protect and advocate for religious minorities facing threat, to oppose religious intolerance and promote Canadian values of pluralism.

The bishops’ statement quoted Pope Francis, who described religious freedom as a “fundamental human right” during his visit to Amman, Jordan, in May 2014.

“The Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom and the Office of Religious Freedom supported those voices within the world’s religions which call for dialogue and for measures leading to peace, justice and true security,” the CCCB said. “The Ambassador and the Office moreover recognized the perilous situation of the Christian minority in the Middle East which has been present in the region for two millennia.”

The bishops pointed out how Christians face additional hardships to those suffered by everyone in the Middle East because of persecution by extremist groups on both sides.

Despite the persecution Christians face, especially in the Middle East and Africa, Christians “provide an important bridge for dialogue and collaboration, and contribute toward education, health care and social services, including assistance for refugees, displaced persons and the most vulnerable in society, no matter their religion or ethnicity.”

The bishops also asked the government for a plan “on how it will carry out its commitment to defend and promote religious freedom as part of its human rights agenda.”

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