Catholic agencies are relieved that the new Office of Freedom, Human Rights and Inclusion will take over concerns about religious freedom. Andrew Bennett’s three-year term as religious freedom ambassador ended in March. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Catholic agencies welcome new Office of Freedom and Human Rights

By 
  • May 25, 2016

OTTAWA – The Office of Religious Freedom is gone but it has not been entirely forgotten by the government that closed it.

In unveiling the Office of Freedom, Human Rights and Inclusion (OFHRI) on May 17, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said religious issues will be a key component of the new office’s mandate. That news came as a relief to Catholic overseas aid agencies.

“We’re encouraged by the fact they have kept a special division on inclusion of religious freedom,” said Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in-Canada program director Josianne Gauthier. “It reassures us the issue will not be ignored but will continue to be protected and defended within a broader human rights framework.”

The new office will replace the Office of Religious Freedom created three years ago by the Stephen Harper government. With a much broader mandate, it will have three times the budget of its predecessor, at $15 million a year.

Under director general Richard Arbeiter, the new office will have three divisions, according to a government news release. Inclusion and Religious Freedom will operate under director Giuliana Natale with a mandate for outreach to various religious and other groups. She will build on the groundwork laid by former ambassador Andrew Bennett.

“The struggle for religious freedom is, at its heart, a struggle for the universal and inseparable freedoms Canadians cherish,” the release said.

“This enhanced approach takes as its departure point a notion Canadians hold dear: people are stronger not in spite of their differences, but because of them.”

Development and Peace’s Gauthier was pleased “to see a greater promotion of human rights,” noting many people are persecuted for reasons other than religion, such as political beliefs or environmental activism. She also applauded the government’s adding indigenous rights to the mandate.

“I hope all these divisions get needed attention and that one won’t fall off but all will get equal support. The indigenous rights issue in Canada has to be a national priority,” she said. “Both the government and the churches are prepared to take responsibility for the past and help build a strong future together within reconciliation. We take this as a hopeful sign,” she said.

“I hope as well the indigenous rights are not just about Canadian peoples but about all indigenous people,” she said. “Most of the time the defenders of human rights in the global south, especially those in environmental issues, on resource extraction, are very often from indigenous communities.”

Indigenous peoples are often the first to be affected by mining and other activities and most vulnerable to degradation of their land and resources, she said. When it comes to mining and land use in general, “a lot of environmental defenders are also indigenous and have to be listened to.”

“We’re hoping this office will have a broader understanding of human rights and how all these different rights interact, and ensure better protection of human rights defenders, especially in the global south but also in Canada,” she said.

Carl Hetu, national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada (CNEWA), was heartened that religious freedom “is at the heart of the office” and will remain a priority. CNEWA had, some projects funded by the previous religious freedom office, such as work promoting pluralism and interfaith dialog in Ukraine. “We’re happy there is an office that will remain,” he said. “Now I think it’s up to us — organizations, churches and religions — to work with the government to ensure that religious freedom is always important in our foreign policy.

“In that sense, CNEWA is certainly open and willing to work with the government in that regard,” he said. “We’ve been approached already for consultation. We said we were happy to be part of that.”

The Office of Religious Freedom was in part inspired by the assassination of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. His brother Peter, founder of International Christian Voice, said that although the new office “has a different name, but I think the mandate is the same.”

“We acknowledge and appreciate what they are doing,” said Bhatti. He called the initiative necessary “because there is more violence in the world and extremism is growing due to religious in tolerance.”

But Bhatti said it is “sad” to lose Ambassador Bennett.

“He did a wonderful job,” he said. “We appreciate what he did for religious freedom.”

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