The Sunday Magazine

Closing Canada's controversial Office of Religious Freedom - Michael's essay

News that the Liberal government did not renew the ORF's mandate, has been met with a resounding whimper.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks on as Dr. Andrew Bennett (right), shakes hands with Muslim cleric Lai Khan Malik after naming Bennett ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom, Tuesday, Feb.19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

You may have missed the decision by the Trudeau government to shut down the operations of the Office of Religious Freedom. On reflection, you may have missed the operations of the Office of Religious Freedom altogether. It was one of those obscure departments, much like the Ministry of Administrative Services in the BBC TV comedy series, Yes, Minister.

Few could quite get a handle on just what it was supposed to do. It was an interesting innovation by the Harper government when it was established in 2013. Its mandate was to advocate on behalf of religious minorities under threat around the world, and to promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad. I'm quoting from the ORF website because I never had a chance to talk about the mandate with the man in charge, Andrew Bennett. We tried several times, in vain, to have Ambassador Bennett on the program.

The government was criticized on two fronts; that it was playing to its evangelical and fundamentalist base and that it was creating a hierarchy of human rights by focussing on one over all the others, freedom of speech, assembly and so on. There was also the attendant confusion in the public's mind, that the ORF had nothing to say about domestic religious issues.

When the government announced it was shutting down the ORF, I called one of the best-informed political correspondents in Ottawa. I said we know what the office is; what has it done? After a thoughtful pause, he said Ambassador Bennett had been on television once or twice. He accompanied Stephen Harper on a visit to Israel. Beyond that he couldn't think of much else. I called a prominent Canadian clergyman and put the same questions to him. He did not answer my voice mail. 

The ORF did spend some money on funding an interfaith dialogue in Nigeria and Ukraine. And it supported the Religious Freedom Fund, which helps religious communities outside Canada facing intolerance or persecution. There is little doubt that religious minorities are under siege. It has been estimated that fully 77 percent of the world's population lives in countries with government restrictions on religious freedom.
Pakistani refugees and asylum-seekers who fled persecution in their homeland worship at an Urdu-speaking church on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. Human-rights groups say Pakistan’s religious minorities are increasingly persecuted. (AP Photo/Malcolm Foster)

In addition, there is something decently compelling about putting religious freedom close to the core of the country's foreign policy. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to promote abroad those freedoms we take for granted in Canada, especially the freedom to practice religion. Combining religion and politics can create a toxic cocktail. In many parts of the world, blasphemy is still a sin and people are killing each other because of religion, or are using religion to further nefarious political agendas. But is there a better way to go about it? Clearly Parliament thinks so, with all four opposition parties voting to close the Office of Religious Freedom.

Perhaps as with war and generals, religion is too important to leave to bureaucrats.


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