Andrew Bennett was inaugurated to the long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom. Photo by Michael Swan

Ottawa professor chosen Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom

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  • February 19, 2013

Updated 02/22/13

With a nod to slain Pakistani cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti, Prime Minister Stephen Harper inaugurated the long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom by appointing a Catholic scholar and public servant as its first-ever ambassador.

Andrew Bennett, a graduate of Saint Paul University's Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and a former professor and dean at the small private Augustine College in Ottawa, has taken the job, which Ottawa insiders say at least two people turned down.

In announcing the new office, Harper linked it to Bhatti, the Pakistani Catholic politician murdered for trying to modify his country's blasphemy laws.

"He worked tirelessly to defend the vulnerable," Harper said. "He did so knowing it put him at risk."

Harper met with Bhatti three weeks before his assassination and made the campaign promise to set up an Office for Religious Freedom 22 months ago.

Harper claimed the office exists to defend and promote fundamental Canadian values.

"There is a crucial and historic link between respect for religious freedom and the development of democracy itself," Harper said. "Governments that violate religious freedom are also prone to impose themselves in every other sphere of life."

The office is important to all Canadians, said Fr. Raymond de Souza, who was an invitee to the event.

"The world is becoming more religious, not less," said de Souza. "One of the ways people can get along is if religious liberty is respected."

The office was a campaign promise of the Conservatives two years ago. Since then the government has been deflecting questions about just when it would be launched while it searched for somebody to lead the new office.

A sub-deacon and cantor in Ottawa at both the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the Baptist Ukrainian-Catholic Shrine, Bennett has government experience as a former political risk analyst for Export Development Canada and as a policy analyst in the Privy Council office.

"Dr. Bennett is a man of principle and deep convictions and he will encourage the protection of religious minorities around the world so all can practise their faith without fear of violence and repression," Harper said.

In his new role, Bennett will monitor religious rights and freedoms and advise the government on incidents of religious intolerance and persecution abroad. According to a government release, Bennett's focus will be on "countries or situations where there is evidence of egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion, violations that could include violence, hatred and systemic discrimination."

In his new role, Bennett will monitor religious rights and freedoms and advise the government on incidents of religious intolerance and persecution abroad. According to a government release, Bennett's focus will be on "countries or situations where there is evidence of egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion, violations that could include violence, hatred and systemic discrimination."

Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney called the new office fundamental to a new approach to foreign affairs.

"Canada will no longer go along to get along," he said.

In answer to a question about whether commercial sanctions would be applied to China, India and other countries that violate religious freedom, Harper said Canada's foreign policy would continue to value commercial relations as a means of spreading democracy.

"We're always very clear about the promotion of our values," he said. "Things that open a society, that cause commerce and communication are a good thing."

The modest office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will operate on a budget of $500,000 a year, with a start-up cost of $5 million.

The new Office of Religious Freedom is modelled after the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom which has been generating annual country-by-country reports on religious oppression since the Clinton presidency.

 

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