Closing the Office of Religious Freedom is a poor moral decision

“The budget is a moral document,” a friend said. A sitting Member of Parliament when he shared this, John explained how the budget is an expression of the moral priorities of government. Like the rest of us, governments have money for what they believe in, what they think is important and what they want.

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The budget was also used this week as a smokescreen, in an effort to obscure a poor public policy decision.

Not funded in the federal budget, with announcement forced a day earlier by an Opposition motion, was Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.

Three years into a mandate that was supported by both the Conservative and Liberal parties when it was established, the tenure of Ambassador Andrew Bennett and the world acclaimed work of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom will come to an end on March 31, 2016.

In making this decision, Prime Minister Trudeau and his government have taken another transparent action to remove symbols and policy of a decade of government by his predecessor. Closing the Office of Religious Freedom is an unfortunate throwing out of the baby with the bathwater, as the old German proverb warns we shouldn’t do.

The responsibility of government is to implement, and maintain, good public policy. Different parties, and thus different governments, may have different ideas about what comprises good policy. But, in this instance, the previous government and the party of the current government agreed before the Office was established that this was good policy.

The government has proffered no indication as to why the policy is considered no longer good. And, offers no alternative.

Canada’s new government has demonstrated a lack of awareness about the geopolitical reality that over 80% of the global population identify with a religion. The United Nations has named religious persecution as a significant concern in 103 of its 193 member nations. And, this “canary in the coal mine” human right is an indicator of other human rights restrictions and abuses.

It has long since been disproved that secularism will triumph in global affairs, a bias of the 1960s that initiated the failed diplomatic approach of setting aside religion when engaging with other nations.

Officers in the Canadian military, both active and retired, have spoken out about dramatic problems in foreign deployment communications failures resulting from the lack of briefing and awareness about the importance of religion to local citizens and governments. Religion was identified as a critical factor in negotiation and conflict resolution breakdowns.

I participated in two briefings provided by the Office to members of the diplomatic corps and support staff at what is now Global Affairs Canada. Two things impressed me. First, was the desire to learn about the importance of religion in the world and how religion impacted the important work of diplomacy. Second, was the general lack of awareness that knowledge of national and local religious beliefs would help or hinder Canada’s role in international relationships.

At home, leaders in a diverse cross-section of Canadian religious communities had identified the importance of such an Office, and advocated over a decade for it. Once established, they engaged to voluntarily assist in its work. These leaders had experienced the importance of religion, either through Canadian religious communities’ relationships with brother and sister communities in other countries or because of their own experience before immigrating to Canada.

Every year, hundreds of millions of people on planet Earth experience social and political hostility simply because of their religious beliefs. Hundreds of thousands are imprisoned, “disappeared,” or die every year, simply because of their religious beliefs. And, dozens of governments govern based on religious principles and requirements.

Twenty-three Canadians with expertise in this field volunteered their time to serve as an advisory committee to the Office of Religious Freedom. It is a rare table around which sat Roman Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish, Secular Humanist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu and others; including religious leaders, lawyers and human rights specialists.

As an advocate for the Office and one of the speakers at the consultation held prior to its establishment, I had a vested interest in its effectiveness, but that alone would have been insufficient for me to write about the decision to close the office being a poor one.

When the Office was first being publicly contested, one of the people with whom I debated was Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. Alex was concerned that the Office might single out religious freedom at the expense of other human rights, and perhaps Christianity at the expense of other religious communities.

Three years later, when rumours circulated earlier this year that the Office might be closed, Alex said publicly he appreciated that Ambassador Bennett had engaged on individual and broader issues of religious persecution abroad. Alex suggested that similar offices focusing on specific human rights might benefit foreign affairs, international trade and development and every aspect of Canada’s foreign engagement. Alex endorsed the importance of specialists aiding generalists, with the potential to consider whether there would be benefit from other human rights ambassadors or envoys to act on behalf of the government.

Having an opponent become a proponent, particularly one who has international human rights awareness and recognized expertise, reinforces that closing the Office is a poor decision. Especially, without a plan to ensure the continuing benefits of having the expertise of specialists to aid an army – both diplomatic and military – of generalists.

When I needed glasses, my family doctor sent me to an optometrist. When I needed eye surgery, an ophthalmic surgeon was a necessity.

Choosing to discontinue funding the Office of Religious Freedom wasn’t just a poor public policy decision, it was a moral decision.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.