Religious Freedom in

Elise Arsenault | Reporter

On November 5th, students in Dr. Koyzis’ class Political Science 121 put Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador of Religious Freedom, on the hot seat during an open question and answer period. Below is a segment of that conversation, tapping into the realities of working to combat the violation of religious freedom overseas.

POL-121: Tell us a little bit about how you were appointed to the position you have.

Dr. Bennett: This position is a new position, having been created only last year by the government. I was working as a public servant at Natural Resources Canada. It was in that position that I was approached by Minister Baird, Canada’s foreign Minister, to see if I would take on this appointment. The office and I exist by virtue of a cabinet decision.                 

There was a need, they felt, to establish this new office within the department of foreign affairs due to the increase of violation of religious freedom in the world. I serve at the pleasure of the cabinet for a period of three years. I am not a partisan player; I am not involved in a particular political office in Ottawa; in fact, the office itself is embedded within public service.

POL-121: When the current government leaves office, as all governments do, will your position still exist?

Dr. Bennett: Well, I hope so! There is certainly a need that for it, given the state of the world and the increasing level of persecution of people of faith. Again, under the Canadian system, no cabinet and no parliament can bind a successor parliament or cabinet, so I would hope that the office would stay in some form.

What’s interesting is that there will be a general election before my term ends, so we’ll see what happens in that election, and what might come about as a result of it.

POL-121: The United States has had such an Ambassador for much longer than Canada. We all know very well that the United States is more powerful than Canada. When you hear about Christians being beheaded in Iraq and Syria, for example, what can Canada do to try an rectify that situation? Or are we limited simply to raising awareness?

Dr. Bennett: That is an interesting point of comparison. The big difference is that in the American system, typically, new bodies within government are created by statute – by law emerging from congress.

Both the Office of International Religious Freedom and the Commission put out annual reports. This report takes direct aim at those countries that are violating religious freedom. They’ve essentially developed a type of category called “Countries of Particular Concern” and then will list countries within this category of CPC.

The Canadian approach tends to be one of encouraging dialogue, trying to work at a grassroots level within civil society, and building up awareness of the root causes behind religious persecution. We try to engage governments where we can – those governments that we can talk to – in a positive way, to encourage them to correct the problems within their society around religious persecution.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t take a stand against countries that are blatantly abusing religious freedom or people’s rights, we will speak out forcefully in that case, but we also want to try and have a dialogue so we can move things along.

I’m certainly not naive to think that we can change things over night. In many cases, what we’re talking about is multigenerational change. Canada engages through advocacy, policy, activities and programming; we have a budget of about 2.5 million to spend on projects that we hope will get to some of the core issues behind violation of religious freedoms.

In the U.S. there’s less emphasis placed on the project and the programming element – we tend to place a heavier emphasis on that. We tend to build upon Canada’s sort of “honest broker” reputation. We also work through the United Nations; there’s a whole U.N process in terms of defending religious freedom.

POL-121: What are we doing about the ISIS massacres that are taking place?

Dr. Bennett: Obviously the situation there is very grave, in the barbaric persecutions we’re seeing of not only religious minorities but also Sunnis and Shias who disagree with ISIL. There are a number of ways in which the government is responding, but the immediate need is humanitarian assistance. There’s a very large number of internally displaced people within both Iraq and Syria who need shelter, food and medical care – these are the immediate actions that are being taken by our colleagues within the development side. Then, there is the defense aspect, where department of national defense is supporting an ally’s effort to combat ISIS. 

Our office is focused very much on working with the communities that are being persecuted, especially those who are now in countries of migration. Principally Iraqi and Syrian Christians are leaving in droves, tending to go to countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. We’re seeking to support them so they can maintain a presence in the region.

We’re conscious that there are Christians that need to leave, and so we have, through citizen and immigration Canada, a whole refugee resettlement program whereby these persecuted Christians and others can come to Canada and find refuge. The concern is that we don’t want to empty the region of Christians, because if we’re true about advancing the Canadian experience in pluralism, we have to support pluralism in other countries. Christians in these countries play a disproportionate role in terms of supporting educational institutions, hospitals and orphanages – they care for the Muslim populations.

I’d rather have a living, breathing, worshipping Iraqi Christian here in Canada, than dead in Iraq, but at the same time we see our office’s role as ensuring that they can maintain a presence in that region, until such a time that they can go back.

POL-121: Do you have to be wary of your own Catholic views while in your position? 

Dr. Bennett: We all come with a particular perspective, so I have to be careful of my bias towards Catholics. As a public servant I am responsible for dispersing public funds, in supporting my Minister, so I want to make sure that I’m balanced in that and not showing favouritism.

One interesting thing, as I’ve engaged religious communities in Canada, is that when they first meet me they don’t know me from Adam, right? They just know me as an Ambassador and academic civil servant. But, without exception, whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews or Bahá'ís, when we begin the conversation and they find out I am a faithful Christian, all the barriers come down! We then engage in a very deep way, because they would see that “Ah, this guy is actually faithful. We have different theologies, but he kind of gets us.” We can actually talk, not only about religious freedom, but also about faith. That has been tremendously beneficial in helping me to do my work. 

Ambassador Bennett and Dr. Koyzis (Professor of POL-121)

Ambassador Bennett and Dr. Koyzis (Professor of POL-121)