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The federal government is cancelling the contracts of part-time prison chaplains, effectively eliminating non-Christian staff.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has mandated that the federal prison system's 71 full-time chaplains, who are overwhelmingly Christian, will provide religious services to all inmates.

Another 49 part-time chaplains – 18 of whom represent non-Christian faiths – will have their contracts cancelled.

"The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners. However, the Government of Canada is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded his review and has decided that chaplains employed by [the Correctional Service of Canada] must provide services to inmates of all faiths," Julie Carmichael, director of communications for Mr. Toews, said in an e-mail.

In September, Mr. Toews's office nixed a proposal for a Wiccan priest to provide about 17 hours of service a month to inmates in British Columbia.

Groups representing religious minorities called on the federal government to reverse course, saying that eliminating non-Christian chaplains is discriminatory.

"We think that this is a contradiction of Canada's commitments on religious freedom and it runs completely contrary to promoting a pluralistic society," said Ihsaan Gardee, acting executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada.

Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the move "is not consistent with Canadian values."

"Those inmates who avail themselves in a sustained way of services that are typically provided by chaplains do much better in terms of their reintegration into society following their release and clearly individuals will be most responsive to those who have a shared faith and are able to draw on particular traditions and values of the specific faith community," he said. "This kind of decision is counterproductive to the overall goal of breaking the cycle of … recidivism and giving inmates an opportunity to break that cycle and move forward in a more productive way."

The government's decision to cancel part-time chaplains' contracts will save approximately $1.3-million of the program's total $6.4-million budget. In addition, some 2,500 volunteers provide religious services in federal prisons, Ms. Carmichael said.

"Upon reviewing the program, it was determined that changes were necessary so that this program supports the freedom of religion of inmates while respecting taxpayer dollars. Convicted criminals will continue to have access to religious services of their choice on a voluntary basis. The government funds some full-time chaplains that are determined based on the number of inmates requesting services from each faith. These chaplains will also make themselves available to provide services to the general population," she said.

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