Students, religious leaders, activists and scholars packed the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre Nov. 3 to hear Canada’s ambassador for the Office of Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, participate in a panel discussion with prominent Canadian political scientist Melissa Williams and legal scholar Anna Su about religious freedom in an international context.
Bennett, who was appointed the first ambassador for the Office of Religious Freedom after the position was created in February 2013, spoke about the purpose and responsibilities of his office and the work it has been involved in globally. He was careful to point out from the very beginning that although he is himself an Eastern Catholic, his position as ambassador is non-partisan. “When we speak out for religious freedom, we are not engaging in theological debate; we are talking about human rights.”
This may have been in part to assuage concerns that have been voiced since the creation of the position about the neutrality of its mission. Indeed, it was precisely this neutrality that Williams challenged in her statements about moral idealism vs. realism in politics. Even the most altruistic goals in foreign policy, she suggested, are always tied to interests at home, pointing out that, “Sometimes, we are selective about the human rights issues we choose to act on.”
Williams argued that in order for humanitarian branches of government such as the Office of Religious Freedom to function, they must exist at arm’s-length from the government in power. “Priority-setting should be based on the most urgent threats to religious freedom, rather than on considerations of national self-interest…or on the interests of the ruling party in getting re-elected.”
Su also questioned the neutrality of the office, but her arguments centred on more philosophical questions such as whether a Canadian definition of “religion” would favour established faiths such as Christianity, and the degree to which a Canadian understanding of pluralism could be applied everywhere. She suggested that “it seems quite abstract to imagine what the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance would look like in places where the general background has nothing in common with the liberal democratic Canadian state,” and went on to ask if there was “an implicit assumption that Canadian values are also universal values.”
Bennett responded to Williams and Su by citing his track record of engaging with a diverse number of religious groups from around the world, and his independence as an ambassador to engage “frankly” with his interlocutors in places like China and Saudi Arabia, which have close trade and diplomatic relationships with Canada, but have human rights records that are, to say the least, troubling. Addressing concerns that the office might ignore the concerns and rights of non-religious groups like atheists or humanists, Bennett also stated that, “religious freedom must encompass the freedom to have no religion.”
However, while Bennett pointed out that when it comes to programming, his office—which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development—receives and considers proposals from the broader population and has a great deal of autonomy in choosing which projects to fund. Later, in an interview with the Anglican Journal, he said that the final say on which proposals would be given funding belonged to the departmental minister, a position currently held by John Baird.
So far, however, the office has been very broad in its advocacy, speaking out on behalf of Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, Baha’i’s in Iran and Christians in Ukraine and China, among many others.
The event was sponsored by the Toronto Area Interfaith Council, the University of Toronto Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative, the Canadian Interfaith Conversation and the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre. It began with music by the Ismaili Youth Vocalists, followed by comments from Multi-Faith Centre director Richard Chambers and Toronto Area Interfaith Council chair Zul Kassamali.