Andrew Bennett

Religious freedom office can make a difference

  • November 4, 2014

TORONTO - Despite a tiny budget and a microscopic staff buried deep within the bureaucracy of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett insists his efforts to promote religious freedom around the world can make a real difference over time.

Bennett made his case for the Office of Religious Freedom before an audience of about 100 students and interfaith activists at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre Nov. 3.

“I’m not naive,” Bennett told The Catholic Register after a panel discussion and question period featuring political science professor Melissa Williams and law professor Anna Su. “It’s a small budget, but it’s an adequate budget.”

The Office of Religious Freedom works with $5 million per year, including $4.25 million going to fund projects overseas through the office’s Religious Freedom Fund. Though the office could only fund a small number of more than 220 proposals it received in its first year, the money goes a long way in poor countries, Bennett said. Assuming some of the projects funded so far will attract continuing funding in years to come, there is an opportunity for gradual, multi-generational change, he said.

The Office of Religious Freedom, set up in February of 2013, does not publish a complete list of the organizations and projects it funds for fear that some of these organizations may be targeted either by oppressive governments or violent factions, Bennett said. 

Beyond the modest commitment of just $5 million, Su and Williams brought up a long list of doubts about the seriousness and the effectiveness of Bennett’s office.

Williams wondered whether the real purpose behind the Office of Religious Freedom is a sop to religiously motivated immigrant voters in Canada.

“Are there blocks of voters who may sometimes be motivated?” she asked. “Is it possible that electoral considerations could play a role in the Canadian government’s talk of human rights?”

The political scientist also wondered about the selective idealism of Canada’s policy on religious freedom abroad. It’s easy for Canada to condemn Islamic State beheadings, but harder to make a public fuss over Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored religious intolerance.

“We need Saudi oil. We need Saudi support in the region,” she said. “We’re selective about human rights.”

It is problematic that Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom is a creation of the government, headed by a government employee, and not an arms-length organization as the Office of International Religious Freedom is in the United States, said Su. Does Bennett’s office act independently or is it responsive to the government’s political priorities?

“I find it curious that the mandate (for the Office of Religious Freedom) contains no reference to the (United Nations’) Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said the international and constitutional law expert.

There is also no mention made of international human rights law, Su said.

“Is there an implicit assumption that Canadian values are universal values?” she asked.

The whole idea of the Office of Religious Freedom is to bring the Canadian experience of religious freedom and tolerance to the world, said Bennett.

“We are guided by the Canadian experience of multiculturalism. We can’t not be,” he said. “But we are also guided by Article 18 (of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights).”

Bennett claimed to have had frank discussions with Saudi representatives about religious freedom in the oil-rich kingdom.

“I place Saudi Arabia in the same category as Iran and China,” he said.

The evening forum was sponsored by the Toronto Area Interfaith Council and the Canadian Interfaith Conversation along with the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre and the University of Toronto Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative.

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