New government leaders shut down Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom and are facing backlash.

Following a parliamentary ruling after a voting session on March 22, Canada's Office of Religious Freedom was shut down permanently as of March 31, amidst great criticism. 

Established three years ago by the previous government, which was described as conservative, the office did not have much support from the country’s recently elected liberals.

Religious freedom supporters were strongly opposed to the move claiming it marked a lack of commitment to religious freedom by the new Canadian government that was aiming to push a secularist agenda.

In response to this, the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement saying that the government intended to incorporate religious rights into the wider human rights bracket. In addition, the Foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion vowed that his party would offer continued support, ‘tooth and nail’, to the defense of all human rights not excluding the freedom of religion and belief. He added that Canada would support efforts to speak out against human rights violations such as where people suffered persecution for being who they are or for practicing their beliefs, such as in cases of threatening and arrest of human rights defenders for choosing to raise their voices against human rights violations.

Despite this assurance, the church and other rights organizations have strongly criticized this move. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) through their spokeswoman Katrina Lantos Swett, released a statement stating that the closure of the offices was “an unfortunate message” to release to the rest of the world especially at this time.

According to an interview with Baptist Press, she stated that the move would be viewed by both pro and anti-religious freedom supporters as an effort to minimize the importance of this human right. She concluded, “the timing for this directive could not be much worse."

Religious leaders have also spoken out on the issue such as Bruce Clemenger, the current president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada who said that in this particular time in history, religious freedom deserved unique focus. He concluded, "Today we have lost an important function."

The president of B'nai Brith Canada, Michael Mostyn, termed the decision as "unfortunate" citing the recent acts of terror that have been religiously motivated.

Head of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, Avi Benlolo in his official statement said that the office offered a sense of religious inclusivity with government despite the continued divisiveness in the society. He concluded saying that it was a great loss for Canadians who believed the sanctity of freedom of religion and overall, in human rights.

Jewish groups while appreciating the efforts by the office's ambassador, Andrew Bennett, also spoke out strongly against the closure.

The Canada Office of Religious Freedom website is however still open despite the closure of its offices although it has not been updated since the end of March.

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