The Liberal government is facing pressure to keep the Office of Religious Freedom open, after representatives from three influential faith groups wrote Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion on Friday asking him not to scrap it.
The open letter from organizations representing Jewish, Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim Canadians underscores the potential political cost of shuttering the three-year-old office, which the previous Conservative government established with much fanfare.
The Citizen reported last week that unless the Liberal government intervenes, current Ambassador for Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett’s three-year term will expire on Feb. 18. The office’s mandate and funding, about $5 million a year, will run out on March 31.
Dion spokesman Adam Barratt said at the time that a decision had not been made and the minister was “examining options and how best to build on the work that has been accomplished in the area of religious freedom while promoting human rights as a whole.”
But in a letter to Dion, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs CEO Shimon Fogel, World Sikh Organization of Canada president Amritpal Singh Shergill, and Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Canada national secretary Asif Khan expressed their support for the office’s “valuable work.”
“The Office of Religious Freedom, under the capable stewardship of Ambassador Bennett, has proven an effective advocate in highlighting the issue of religious persecution, partnering with Diaspora communities in Canada, and raising our country’s profile as a world leader in human rights promotion,” the letter reads.
The signatories describe the office’s $5-million budget as “modest,” and note that while the projects it supports abroad “do not always make headlines, we believe they laudably reflect a practical and effective role Canada can play in mitigating the plight of persecuted religious minorities around the world.”
The Office of Religious Freedom was the subject of controversy even before it was established on Feb. 19, 2013. Promised by the Conservatives during the 2011 election, some worried it would be used to selectively champion Christianity, woo certain ethnic voter groups and pursue pet projects of the government.
But Fogel said that religious freedom and tolerance transcend religious and partisan lines. “By joining hands with our friends in the Sikh and Ahmadiyya communities,” he said in a statement, “we are affirming that a diversity of Canadians appreciate the vital and practical work of the Office of Religious Freedom – and believe it should remain a fixture of Canada’s foreign policy.”
“We have joined with our friends in the Jewish and Ahmadiyya communities to express our appreciation for the work being undertaken by the office, and in conveying our hope that the government will continue to strongly support its efforts,” Shergill said in a separate statement.
Some, such as former NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, have called for the office to be abolished entirely and replaced with an office or organization that will take a more comprehensive approach to promoting human rights abroad.
But the communities represented by the three groups that wrote to Dion on Friday have sizeable communities within Canada, which could make it politically sensitive for the Liberal government to close the Office for Religious Freedom.