The Canadian government will be making many decisions over the next number of weeks in the lead-up to the new budget on March 22. One of those decisions involves the Office of Religious Freedom.
Will the government keep it, or let it go? Right now, its future is uncertain.
Created in 2013 by the previous Conservative government, the Office was given a three-year term, a budget of $5 million and a mandate to protect and advocate for threatened religious minorities, oppose religious hatred and intolerance, and promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.
People familiar with the Office, and with the work of its ambassador, Andrew Bennett, say it has been effective and helpful within its mandate.
This includes giving grants to organizations to promote religious freedom and understanding.
One of the grant recipients was Winnipeg’s Mennonite Central Committee, which received $500,000 to promote inter-religious dialogue and cooperation among youth, religious leaders, and community members in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
But now the Office’s term will expire at the end of March.
When asked about its future, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion would only say that the government is determining “how best to preserve and protect all human rights, including the vital freedom of religion or belief.”
John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, the Government said in an e-mail message that the government is “currently reviewing options for Canadian leadership to enhance our efforts to champion peaceful pluralism, respect for diversity, and human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.”
Comments like these have led some to conclude that the Office’s days are numbered—which would be too bad, according to close observers of the Ottawa scene.
“Sometimes new governments want to shut down anything that smacks of the former government,” said a senior staff member at one church organization, who asked to be anonymous since her organization hasn’t taken an official position on the Office.
“The Liberals should resist that urge in this case.”
The Office, she said, should not only continue, but have its mandate expanded beyond the human rights lens to include “the role religion plays in peace and conflict.”
It’s a perspective, she added, that “should be woven into all” of Canada’s work in international affairs.
Another church leader, who also didn’t want to be identified, would like to see the Office continue but see it consult and collaborate more with Canada’s religious community.
When the Office was being created, John Siebert organized a meeting of religious leaders to discuss the role it could play. He, too, thinks it should continue, and also have its mandate enlarged.
To date, he said, the Office “has funded worthy projects,” said the former Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, a Kitchener-based organization that works with churches and the government to prevent war and armed violence and build peace.
But, he adds, it could do much more by “working with religious groups both here and in conflict-ridden societies where religion is a factor in the conflict.”
It could have “more of a peacebuilding agenda, taking seriously the role of religion in conflict and in creating peace,” he shared, adding that it could also “help diplomats think about role religion plays in international affairs.”
So: Does the government need the Office for Religious Freedom?
One person who believed such a resource is valuable is former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Before taking that role for the American government, she admitted she underestimated the role religion plays in international affairs.
“I was unprepared for it,” she said. “In looking at what was going on in the world, it was evident that religion and the force of religion, and people’s interpretation of how they saw God, really is very much a part of international relations.”
What she needed to do her job well, she stated, were not just economic and arms control advisors, but “religious advisors that are complementing all the other advisors . . . rather than keeping religion and religious leaders out of things, we need their help.”
In a few weeks, when the budget is announced, we’ll learn whether the Canadian government feels the same way.