Scholar Andrew Bennett to lead Canada's Office of Religious Freedom
Published Tuesday, February 19, 2013 6:51AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 19, 2013 6:39PM EST
The federal government has appointed a Christian college dean to head up Canada’s new, controversial Office of Religious Freedom.
Andrew Bennett, the Catholic dean of Augustine College, a Christian liberal arts school in Ottawa, has been tasked with promoting religious freedom around the world and monitoring persecution of religious minorities.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had promised to establish the office as a branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs during the 2011 federal election campaign.
Harper announced Bennett’s appointment at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque in Vaughan, Ont., Tuesday afternoon, where representatives of different faiths had gathered.
The prime minister described 40-year-old Bennett, who has also worked for the Privy Council Office, as a “scholar, a man of principle and deep conviction.”
“Most of the countless men and women who are prosecuted for their faith are not known to us by name, but to them we say Canada will not forget you,” Harper said. “When you are silenced we will speak out, we will use our freedom to plead for yours.”
Bennett told reporters he’s looking forward to “taking on this great challenge.”
“It says a lot about the government wanting to promote this aspect of human rights," he said.
"It's (about) building awareness about the issue of religious freedom abroad; it's about interacting with the various communities here in Canada who are in the diaspora from these areas where religious freedom is not respected."
But human rights groups and opposition critics have said the Office of Religious Freedom is a misguided attempt to inject religion into foreign policy.
They also questioned what exactly it can accomplish with a modest $5-million budget.
"The Office of Religious Freedoms, as introduced today, represents both a broken Conservative promise and a missed opportunity," NDP’s foreign affairs critic, Paul Dewar, said in a statement.
"Conservatives had repeatedly promised a democratic development agency, but they broke that promise and now they're moving forward on a much more limited and narrow approach."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae agreed that religious freedom is an important value, but questioned how the newly created office will fit into Canada’s broader efforts to address human rights issues.
“I’m concerned that we shouldn’t see this as an exclusive focus,” he told CTV’s Power Play. “This has got to be part of an overall approach.”
Rae also said the values of certain religious groups may not include “a lot of other values that Canadians in fact hold dear: equality between women and men, sexual orientation as a basic principle and the right to be yourself.”
Others expressed concern that the Office of Religious Freedom may focus too much on Christians because the man leading it is a Catholic.
“I think it does raise questions about whether or not this government is biased toward Christian groups,” said Amira Elghawaby, the human-rights officer with the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations.
But Harper said he wants to make it “very clear that this is not an office to protect a particular religion.”
“This is an office to promote religious diversity and tolerance around the world.”
Don Hutchinson of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said the fact that Canada has opened its doors to immigrants from all kinds of religious backgrounds should quell any concerns about favouritism.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who joined Harper for Tuesday’s announcement, along with Minister of International Co-operation Julian Fantino, told Power Play that Bennett can “develop an expertise” on religious persecutions that can better inform Canada’s foreign and immigration policies.
Asked what Bennett can do besides publicly condemn specific incidents, such as attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians or Tibetans in China, Kenney said: “even making statements is nothing to be sneered at.”
Kenney said the idea to create a religious freedom office was inspired by Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shabhaz Bhatti, who was killed in 2011 shortly after meeting with Harper in Canada. Extremists had accused Bhatti, a Christian, of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
While Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who’s in the middle of a six-country tour of Latin America, wasn’t on hand for Tuesday’s announcement, he has been involved in many high-level meetings with religious figures over the last year and a half.
Baird has held consultations in Rome, with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey and with the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
The U.S. religious freedom office was put in place under the Clinton administration.
With a report from CTV’s Roger Smith and files from The Canadian Press