Christian college dean named to head religious freedom office
Ambassador for religious freedom is a Catholic dean and former civil servant
Posted: Feb 19, 2013 1:21 PM ET
Last Updated: Feb 19, 2013 3:09 PM ET
Andrew Bennett, a Christian college dean and former civil servant, has been named ambassador for Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today.
“Around the world, violations of religious freedom are widespread and they are increasing,” Harper said In a speech at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque in Maple, Ont., north of Toronto.
“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.”
Bennett, a Catholic, is dean of Augustine College, a Christian liberal arts college in Ottawa. He has a PhD in politics from the University of Edinburgh and a master of arts in history from McGill University in Montreal.
Bennett wrote his doctoral thesis on comparing separatists and nationalist movements in Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia.
After graduating, he went to work for the deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs. He later worked at the Export Development Corporation, and at the Privy Council Office.
Harper first promised the new branch of the Foreign Affairs Department during the last federal election campaign.
Dr. Andrew Bennett is dean of Augustine College, a Christian liberal arts college in Ottawa and is a former civil servant.(Augustine College)
“This was a platform commitment, to create an office of religious freedom, to make the protection of religious freedom of vulnerable religious minorities a key pillar of Canadian foreign policy,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who attended the announcement, told reporters on Monday.
Harper told the story of meeting Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister from Pakistan whom the prime minister described as someone who took great risks to defend persecuted religious minorities in his country, including his fellow Christians. Three weeks after that meeting, Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad, Harper said. A militant Islamist group took responsibility for his killing.
It has been said that Bhatti was the inspiration for the founding of the Office of Religious Freedom.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters, Harper denied the office would be modelled after its U.S. counterpart, which has been accused of being biased towards Christians.
Harper said that Canada is “a very different country” and said the fact the announcement was made in a mosque makes it clear that the goal of the office is “to promote religious tolerance around the world.”
Bennett, in his early forties, said he would be dealing with a “human issue, not a theological issue” and that even those who choose not to have a faith would be protected.
In 2011, a closed-door meeting about the office, organized by the government, was criticized by some scholars after it turned out four of the six panellists being consulted were drawn from Christian religions, with the other two being Jewish and Baha’i.
Don Hutchinson, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, who was one of the six panelists consulted by the government, told CBC that different religious groups had been widely consulted.
But Colin Clay, an Anglican priest in Saskatoon, who heads both Multi-Faith Saskatoon and Multi-Faith Saskatchewan, said he didn’t know of any consultation with his groups and first found out about the proposed Office of Religious Freedom by reading about it in a newspaper.
Asked if the office might be slanted toward Christians, Hutchinson said, “The most persecuted faith on the planet is the Christian faith community. So in striking a balance, one would have to look at the orthodox or Roman Catholic or evangelical communities as well as the needs of the various Muslim communities and the Baha’i and other groups.”
Arvind Sharma, who teaches comparative religion at McGill, told CBC that one of the reasons Christian faiths are the most persecuted is because they are also the most proselytizing in many parts of the world.
“Conversion can mean two things when related to religious freedom”, he said. “My right to change my religion and somebody else’s right to ask me to change my religion. The person who is trying to convert somebody may use deception, may use threat, may use temptation and so on.”
However, Sharma also said, “I see a great opportunity because the office is being set up in Canada and Canada is a self-consciously multi-cultural society, so it has this great opportunity to define religious freedom in a way which is inclusive, which takes the views of all the religions in the world into this view and not just the missionary religions.”
‘It must not become Christian-centric’
Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a human rights advocate and his party’s critic on human rights, welcomed the office and noted that religious freedom is a “fundamental human right under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
However, he warned, “it must not become Christian-centric, or it must not appear to prefer a particular religion. In other words, there has to be an egalitarian approach.”
Paul Dewar, the NDP’s critic for foreign affairs, told CBC there had been no consultation with opposition parties about the office. He recalled that when prime minister Brian Mulroney set up the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, also known as Rights and Democracy, in 1988, the opposition parties were broadly consulted.
Rights and Democracy had been created to be a non-partisan, independent Canadian institution that monitored human rights around the world and provided support to democratic groups. The government pulled the plug on it last year.
Dewar said about the office for religious freedom, “If this is all we have to replace human rights protection and democratic development abroad, I think it’s short changing what Canada can do.”