Andrew Bennett, Canada's Ambassador for Religious Freedom, during a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2014. Photo: DFATD/MAECD
Andrew Bennett has served as Canada’s first Ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom since the position was created in February 2013. Previously, Bennett, a native of Toronto, Ont., served as a professor and dean at Saint Paul University in Ottawa and worked as a member of the civil service in Export and Development Canada and the Privy Council Office.
Bennett holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Edinburgh, a master of history from McGill and is in the process of completing an undergraduate degree in Eastern Christian studies at Saint Paul University. He is an Eastern Catholic, and serves as sub-deacon and cantor at the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the Baptist Ukrainian-Catholic Shrine (both in Ottawa). In addition to these roles, he is the vice-president and chairman of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute Foundation.
The Anglican Journal met with him in November to discuss some of the things he has accomplished and the challenges he has faced since being appointed ambassador.
Have you dealt with much criticism around your religious affiliation in the context of your position as ambassador?
I would say that the criticism hasn’t been that significant. When the office was being set up, there was some criticism about the office, but I wouldn’t say there was as much criticism directed toward me personally as a Ukrainian Greek Catholic. I have always worn my faith on my sleeve, but I think anyone who would be in this position, whether they were Jewish or Protestant or Hindu or Muslim or an Atheist or a secular humanist— they are always going to bring that with them. All of us have particular perspectives, particular biases even, but I think that in our work as public servants, we’re there to represent the government of Canada.
What I’ve found is that when I’ve engaged different faith communities abroad and here at home to get their perspective on what is happening abroad—it doesn’t matter whether they’ve been Muslim or Buddhist or Christian or Zoroastrian or any religious tradition—once they realize in our conversation that I am not solely the Ambassador for Religious Freedom or solely a civil servant or solely an academic but that I am actually a man of faith, it’s amazing how any barriers there might be are immediately broken down.
You’ve been very clear in your commitment to draw attention to the number of persecuted Christians, but you’ve gotten quite a bit of a resistance to that. Where do you think that comes from?
That is a very difficult question. The office is there to defend any community that faces persecution, and we’ve been consistent in standing up for any faith community that faces persecution. I’ve met with pretty much every faith community in Canada at least once, including atheists and secular humanists, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, different Muslim communities of all variations, Christians, different elements of the Jewish community—we’ve been very clear about defending anyone facing religious persecution, and if people want to look at the record, they can go to our website.
We cannot deny, though, that Christians happen to be the largest religion in the world. It is present in most of the countries of the world, so I think that is certainly a factor as to why Christians face the greatest persecution. But there is sometimes a fear that speaking out in defence of Christians is politically incorrect, maybe because there is an impression that Christians don’t need to be defended due to a particular understanding of Christian history, or an understanding of the role that Christians have played in world history.
But if we start out as having as our basis for why we defend those [who] are facing persecution is that their human dignity is being egregiously violated through torture, imprisonment, even persecution to death—then we have to speak out for Christians, and we have to be open about the fact that they are being persecuted, and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about that.
You’ve pointed to religious freedom as a blind spot in conversations about human rights.
I think part of it has to do with how our societies have evolved in Western liberal democracies. With the growth in more secular attitudes within the public sphere, with more secularizing influences within society, religious faith has moved out of the public sphere and into the private sphere—into the home, into the church, into the mosque, the temple. This development has often made us a little uneasy about discussing religion in the public sphere. When we go to countries where religion dominates not only a perceived cultural discourse but also a political discourse, an economic discourse and a social discourse, it sometimes may be a bit hard for us coming from a more secular society to engage that.
But we need to learn how to do that. If we are unable to do that, if we are unable to go to countries such as those, and there, seek to understand the role that religion plays, and engage, then we risk developing, as you say, a religious blind spot. It’s hard to advance religious freedom if you’re not comfortable talking about religion.
Canada recently put Hungary on a list of countries that are very unlikely to produce refugees. How much effort do you put into monitoring liberal democracies that are sliding toward illiberalism?
Hungary is a persistent concern for us because of the inconsistency of their language and pronouncements, and the lack of concrete action to halt the spread of anti-Semitism. Countries that are sliding away from established liberal-democratic principles, yes, we take great concern in that. But all countries have their warts; Canada has its warts. But even though we’ve had challenges around religious intolerance and lack of respect for different religious communities, it’s through the growth of a multicultural, multi-faith society grounded in functioning democratic institutions, a bill of rights and then subsequently a charter of rights and freedoms, that we articulate what we want our society to be governed by…That’s what a democracy is fundamentally about. [In order] to have a nuanced understanding of religious freedom, we also need to bear close attention to freedom of expression, press freedom, freedom of association, equality of rights between men and women.
What has your office accomplished in the time since it was created?
The office’s work is divided into three areas: advocacy, policy development and programming. We engage in advocacy overseas with foreign governments, faith communities, human rights organizations and a wide array of civil society groups. I’ve travelled a lot over the better part of the last year-and-a-half, where I’ve had a chance to engage in that type of advocacy, to have some frank conversations with governments, to raise issues of concern to Canada where religious freedom have been violated.
On the policy side, we’ve begun to develop a series of approaches to different countries to better understand what the dynamics in those countries are, and how, through policy, we can address those issues. We’ve issued several dozen statements now, on different situations. In some cases, our advocacy through those actions—along with our allies—has secured the release of those facing persecution. For example, we were very active in the case of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishaq, who was wrongly accused of apostasy in Sudan. We also worked to raise the profile of a Sri Lankan Muslim human rights activist, Assad Salih, and called for his release—he was being imprisoned under Sri Lanka’s draconian prevention of terrorism law, and his first port of call after being released was the Canadian High Commission, to thank Canada for speaking on his behalf.
On the programming side, the vast majority of our annual budget of $5 million annual budget, $4.25 million, is dedicated to our religious freedom fund. This is a fund whereby we support projects in a variety of countries to try to get to some of the underlying issues behind religious persecution and try and address some of the concerns and elements that we hope can bring about a shift in the behaviour of certain countries. Our latest call—in which we called for anybody to submit proposals—resulted in over 200 [submissions]. Anyone can still submit unsolicited proposals to the religious freedom fund.
What criteria do you use in deciding which proposals to follow up on?
The projects have to be specifically focused on advancing religious freedom overseas; while we can support Canadian organizations that do this, the work has to be done overseas. Our programming can support projects that raise awareness and activities that provide education on freedom of religion and belief, which includes supporting curriculum develop that would address curricula in certain countries that are prejudiced toward specific faith communities. We can support research that would encourage certain foreign government’s engagement in the area of respect for religious diversity and advancing pluralism within their societies. Most of the countries we’re engaging with, like Canada, are pluralist—they’re multi-faith, they’re multicultural. So we’d like to share the Canadian experience of a generally well-functioning multicultural, multi-faith society.
You were once asked about your staff—their diversity and religious affiliation. You said you didn’t really know because it wasn’t something that was talked about in your office. Generally, in the culture of the civil service, there is a resistance to talking about such things, which strikes me as being rather ironic in your context, given the mission of your office. Why is this something that people feel reticence about?
I don’t think that people feel reticent about it, and maybe in my response to the question I didn’t phrase my thinking about it very well, because I was kind of taken off-guard by the question. By no means is there a prohibition on discussing religion in the office; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do our work. But I think that in all aspects of society— in our professional lives, in academic endeavours—those of us that are faithful should be open about our religious faith, or if you have a particular philosophical belief that is not a religious belief, you should be able to be open about that as well. That’s freedom of expression; that’s freedom of religion. However, I don’t go out of the way to raise the personal religious beliefs of my staff on a regular basis. If they want to talk about it, great— I’m happy to have that conversation and to have it as part of our environment. But I know some of them are more private about their beliefs, and that’s fine.
I think sometimes, in the workplace—and I’m speaking generally now—sometimes people are fearful about speaking about their beliefs. There’s always a time and a place to talk about your beliefs, and people should have the freedom to do that, and I personally believe that the freedom is there. But some people just choose not to afford themselves of that freedom. They’re afraid of how that might be perceived.
I suspect the question that was raised was about trying to establish that there are lots of different religious opinions involved…
Exactly. And we’re actively engaging with all these different religious communities in the world and here in Canada. It is not a criterion of the office to have so many Christians, so many Muslims, so many Jews, so many Hindus. First of all, that’s against federal government hiring policy, so we can’t have quotas. We seek to have representation in terms of male/female, visible minorities, Francophones/Anglophones—these are the principles of public service employment at the federal level, so we seek to do as best we can to do that.Back to Top
André Forget joined the Anglican Journal in 2014 as staff writer and social media lead. He also serves as managing editor of Whether Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, The Winnipeg Review, and the Town Crier.
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