Canada (MNN) — Canada’s parliament voted to scrap its Office of Religious Freedom.
It was a counterpart to the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. Established three years ago by the country’s Conservative government, the newly-elected Liberal government closed the office on March 31, after its mandate expired.
It didn’t go down without a fight. The Conservative Party of Canada tabled a motion in the House of Commons to renew the mandate, but The Liberals defeated the motion 225 to 90.
According to the Office of Religious Freedom, their international mandate is to:
- protect and advocate on behalf of religious minorities under threat.
- oppose religious hatred and intolerance.
- promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.
They focused on advocacy, analysis, policy development, and programming related to protecting and advocating on behalf of religious communities under threat, no matter which faith they profess.
With it closing down, Canada will now fold religious rights into a broader concern for human rights. “They [the new Liberal government] would tell you that the money–a budget of five million dollars that had been established per year–could be spent for the same purpose, but in different ways,” explains Doug McKenzie, CEO of the Voice of the Martyrs Canada. The current Ambassador, Andrew Bennett, is overseeing the transition “which is to defund the Office and to absorb it functionality into other things that the new government is doing.”
Meanwhile, Conservatives say they’ll continue to defend all human rights–including the freedom of religion and belief–“tooth and nail” because “the Office of Religious Freedom was established to basically promote religious freedom and protect the rights of those around the world who are practicing in their faith,” he adds.
Multiple faith groups protested the office’s closure. Statements from the Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim communities indicated they thought the work of the Office of Religious Freedom was valuable. McKenzie concurs. “We think that, by having specifically an office of religious freedom, there was a necessary focus on that subject that protected some very important fundamental rights.” That’s especially true, given the threats from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other related groups in many areas where minority religious groups are being pushed to near extinction.
Katrina Lantos Swett, of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said in a press statement: “This is a very unfortunate message to send out to the rest of the world at this time.” Says McKenzie: “By pulling it apart and absorbing it into other things, there’s a de-emphasis specifically on religious freedom, which in today’s world is problematic because we live in a world of extremism.”
However, the closure presents another opportunity, too. “VOM-Canada is in a unique position, I believe, to be continue to be a voice for the voiceless, or to be a voice on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.” VOM-Canada is considering establishing a bureau in Ottawa to keep their message consistently in front of the policy makers. To that end, “The core message that we need to make sure the politicians understand, is that there is a very large predominance of persecution in today’s world, which is specifically against Christians.”
What can be done now that the Office is closed? Pray, answers McKenzie. “We want to invite people to pray with us for our leadership in Canada, for this new government: that they would be given all the things that they need of God to administer the government in such a way that it is allowing people to grow and mature, spiritually and otherwise.”
Sixteen VOM offices are serving the persecuted Church worldwide in more than 50 countries. VOM continues in Pastor Richard Wurmbrand’s vision of serving persecuted Christians worldwide.