TORONTO — Major Jewish community organizations united in praising the launch of the federal government’s new Office of Religious Freedoms.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially inaugurated the office – it was first conceived in 2011 – on Feb. 19, with an announcement in Maple, Ont., at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at mosque.
The office will operate under the auspices of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and has a $5-million annual operating budget.
Harper appointed Andrew Bennett, 40, a practising Catholic, academic and dean of Augustine College in Ottawa as the office’s first “ambassador.”
According to the government, the office will “promote freedom of religion and belief, consistent with core Canadian values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law” both domestically and worldwide.
It will also “support programming aimed at raising greater awareness of threats to religious freedom and by promoting pluralism.”
Harper praised Bennett as a “man of principle and deep convictions” who will promote Canadian values wherever he speaks.
“In Iran, Baha’is and Christians face harassment, imprisonment, and, in some cases, death. In Pakistan, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shiites Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus are vulnerable to persecution and violence. In China, Christians who worship outside government-approved boundaries are driven underground and their leaders are arrested and detained while Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners are subjected to repression and intimidation,” Harper said.
“Elsewhere we watch in horror as sanctuaries are destroyed and believers are attacked and in some cases slaughtered, Shia Muslim pilgrims in Iraq, Coptic Christian adherents in Egypt, Christians at worship in Nigeria – the list, appallingly, goes on and on. In the face of these injustices and atrocities, Canada will not be silent.”
The Jewish community was quick to laud the establishment of the office, with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center Canada (FSWC) all issuing statements within hours of the prime minister’s pronouncement.
CIJA chair David Koschitzky, commended the government for the initiative, saying the office is “in keeping with Canada's best traditions of advancing human rights” internationally.
“As history has painfully shown, a given country’s treatment of religious minorities is a barometer of its human rights record as a whole,” he said. “We look forward to working with the new Office of Religious Freedom and Canadians of all backgrounds in support of this urgent and noble cause.”
Frank Dimant, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said the office is a “positive step forward” for freedom.
“When you protect the rights of religious minorities, you make real strides towards protection of the rights of all.”
Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the FSWC, also lauded the new office and Bennett’s appointment, saying his group is “proud” to support the initiative.
Speaking to reporters on a Feb. 21 conference call, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said Bennett will soon assemble an advisory board that will include Jews and representatives of other faith groups.
The CJN asked Kenney whether his ministry would be monitoring reports and recommendations by Bennett to reconsider countries on Ottawa’s new list of democratic of countries don’t typically produce refugees if conditions in those countries change. He replied that there are already mechanisms in place for that purpose, but he believes Bennett’s office could play a role in providing more information for such decisions.