OTTAWA (CCN) — Catholic overseas aid agencies welcomed the new Office of Freedom, Human Rights and Inclusion (OFHRI) announced by Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion May 17.
“We’re encouraged by the fact they have kept a special division on inclusion of religious freedom,” said Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in-Canada program director Josianne Gauthier. “It reassures us the issue will not be ignored but will continue to be protected and defended within a broader human rights framework.”
This new office will replace the Office of Religious Freedom created three years ago by the Harper government. It will have three times the budget of the Religious Freedom Office, at $15 million a year. Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett will remain at Global Affairs Canada until June to help with the transition.
The office’s director general is Richard Arbeiter. According to a Global Affairs news release, the OFHRI will have three divisions: Human Rights and Indigenous Affairs; Inclusion and Religious Freedom; and Democracy. Inclusion and Religious Freedom director Giuliana Natale will be in charge with outreach to various religious and other groups. The office aims to build on the work already done by Bennett’s religious freedom office.
“The struggle for religious freedom is, at its heart, a struggle for the universal and inseparable freedoms Canadians cherish,” the release said. “This enhanced approach takes as its departure point a notion Canadians hold dear: people are stronger not in spite of their differences, but because of them.”
“We’re happy to see a greater promotion of human rights on the part of this government,” Gauthier said, noting many people are persecuted for reasons other than religion, such as political beliefs or environmental activism.
Gauthier also applauded the government’s adding indigenous rights to the mandate. “I hope all these divisions get needed attention and that one won’t fall off but all will get equal support.”
“The indigenous rights issue in Canada has to be a national priority,” she said. Both the government and the churches are prepared to take responsibility for the past and help build a strong future together within reconciliation. We take this as a hopeful sign,” she said.
“I hope as well the indigenous rights are not just about Canadian peoples but about all indigenous people,” she said. “Most of the time the defenders of human rights in the Global South, especially those in environmental issues, on resource extraction, are very often from indigenous communities.”
Indigenous peoples are often the first to be affected by mining and other activities and most vulnerable to degradation of their land and resources, she said. When it comes to mining and land use in general, “a lot of environmental defenders are also indigenous and have to be listened to.”
“We’re hoping this office will have a broader understanding of human rights and how all these different rights interact, and ensure better protection of human rights defenders, especially in the Global South but also in Canada,” she said.
“We are happy to see the government still makes religious freedom a priority,” said Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada national director Carl Hetu, noting a statement from Global Affairs “clearly says religious freedom is at the heart of the office.”
Religious persecution is a worldwide phenomenon of the 21st century. “Countries are imploding and the first victims are religious minorities,” Hetu said. “When you attack a religious group, it’s not just about religion, it’s about democracy; it’s about your right to speech; your right to decide, your right to be, so it affects a whole variety of human rights.”
CNEWA did some projects funded by the previous religious freedom office, such as work promoting pluralism and interfaith dialogue in Ukraine. “We’re happy there is an office that will remain,” he said. “Now I think it’s up to us — organizations, churches and religions — to work with the government to ensure that religious freedom is always important in our foreign policy.”
“In that sense, CNEWA is certainly open and willing to work with the government in that regard,” he said. “We’ve been approached already for consultation, we said we were happy to be part of that.”
“We acknowledge and appreciate what they are doing,” said Peter Bhatti, founder of International Christian Voice, and brother of assassinated Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti whose martyrdom inspired the Harper government to set up the Office of Religious Freedom. “It has a different name, but I think the mandate is the same.”
Bhatti called the initiative necessary “because there is more violence in the world and extremism is growing due to religious tolerance.”
But Bhatti said it is “sad” to lose Ambassador Bennett. “He did a wonderful job,” he said. “We appreciate what he did for religious freedom.”