“To stop religious oppression and hatred, you need something that actually addresses violations against religious freedom, not a general office committed to a smorgasbord of rights,” Stockland explained. “The Office of Religious Freedom was established specifically to root out religious persecution.”
Barry W. Bussey, director of legal affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, said focusing on religious freedom does not devalue other rights.
“Having an Office of Religious Freedom does not mean that religious freedom trumps other human rights,” told CNA March 23. “It is simply that we are living in a time when religious freedom is in peril because of all that is happening on the international scene with respect to religious minorities.”
In 2013, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Andrew P.W. Bennett as the first Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom. During the 2011 federal election, Harper promised to create an office of religious freedom. He said the effort was inspired by the brutal assassination of Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani politician who criticized Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws and defended victims of religious persecution.
With a $5 million dollar budget, the office has funded various projects in Nigeria, Ukraine, Pakistan, Myanmar and Iraq. The projects have focused on promoting religious tolerance in schools and helping religious minorities under threat.
Bussey explained that religious minorities will be adversely affected by the decision.
“Fundamentally, the office raised the profile of religious minorities and helped bring greater understanding between various religious groups,” he said. “Religious minorities are very disappointed that the office is closing.”
“Many minorities chose to settle in Canada and other western countries like the U.S., because they were fleeing persecution in their home state,” Bussey explained. “The creation of the Office for Religious Freedom showed religious minorities that their new country was concerned about their plight and the fate of their fellow believers back home. The closing of the office puts this concern in question.”
Although Dion voted against the office, the foreign minister said Canada will still “enhance and strengthen Canada’s fight for religious freedom everywhere.”
Bussey said that religious minorities will hold the government accountable.
“Religious minorities will be watching the Canadian government closely to see if it holds true to its promise to maintain the same level of concern about religious persecution as it did with the Office of Religious Freedom,” he said.
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“These minorities have family members back in their home state and will watch very carefully what the government does with respect to religious freedom and the persecution of their fellow countrymen,” Bussey explained.
He said he hopes the Canadian government will keep its promise to value religious freedom.
“Once the office is closed, there is a real fear that religious freedom will get lost in the sea of other international concerns of the government,” Bussey concluded. “I hope the government will prove everyone with such fears wrong and that religious freedom will still be maintained as a high priority.”