Andrew Bennett has served as Canada’s first Ambassadorto the Office of Religious Freedom since the position was created in February2013. Previously, Bennett, a native of Toronto, Ont., served as a professor anddean at Saint Paul University in Ottawa and worked as a member of the civilservice in Export and Development Canada and the Privy Council Office.
Bennett holds a doctorate in political sciencefrom the University of Edinburgh, a master of history from McGill and is in theprocess of completing an undergraduate degree in Eastern Christian studies atSaint Paul University. He is an Eastern Catholic, and serves as sub-deacon andcantor at the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the BaptistUkrainian-Catholic Shrine (both in Ottawa). In addition to these roles, he isthe vice-president and chairman of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky InstituteFoundation.
The Anglican Journal met with himin November to discuss some of the things he has accomplished and thechallenges he has faced since being appointed ambassador.
Have youdealt with much criticism around your religious affiliation in the context ofyour 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 asa Ukrainian Greek Catholic. I have always worn my faith on my sleeve, but Ithink anyone who would be in this position, whether they were Jewish orProtestant or Hindu or Muslim or an Atheist or a secular humanist— they arealways 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’rethere to represent the government of Canada.
What I’ve found is that when I’ve engaged different faithcommunities abroad and here at home to get their perspective on what ishappening abroad—it doesn’t matter whether they’ve been Muslim or Buddhist orChristian or Zoroastrian or any religious tradition—once they realize in ourconversation that I am not solely the Ambassador for Religious Freedom or solelya 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’vebeen very clear in your commitment to draw attention to the number ofpersecuted Christians, but you’ve gotten quite a bit of a resistance to that. Wheredo you think that comes from?
That is a very difficult question. The office is there todefend any community that faces persecution, and we’ve been consistent instanding up for any faith community that faces persecution. I’ve met withpretty much every faith community in Canada at least once, including atheistsand secular humanists, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, different Muslim communities ofall variations, Christians, different elements of the Jewish community—we’vebeen very clear about defending anyone facing religious persecution, and ifpeople want to look at the record, they can go to our website.
We cannot deny, though, that Christians happen to be thelargest religion in the world. It is present in most of the countries of theworld, so I think that is certainly a factor as to why Christians face thegreatest persecution. But there is sometimes a fear that speaking out indefence of Christians is politically incorrect, maybe because there is animpression that Christians don’t need to be defended due to a particularunderstanding of Christian history, or an understanding of the role thatChristians have played in world history.
But if we start out as having as our basis for why we defendthose [who] are facing persecution is that their human dignity is beingegregiously violated through torture, imprisonment, even persecution to death—thenwe have to speak out for Christians, and we have to be open about the fact thatthey are being persecuted, and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about that.
You’ve pointedto religious freedom as a blind spot in conversations about human rights.
I think part of it has to do with how our societies haveevolved in Western liberal democracies. With the growth in more secularattitudes within the public sphere, with more secularizing influences withinsociety, religious faith has moved out of the public sphere and into theprivate sphere—into the home, into the church, into the mosque, the temple. Thisdevelopment has often made us a little uneasy about discussing religion in thepublic sphere. When we go to countries where religion dominates not only aperceived cultural discourse but also a political discourse, an economicdiscourse and a social discourse, it sometimes may be a bit hard for us comingfrom a more secular society to engage that.
But we need to learn how to do that. If we are unable to dothat, if we are unable to go to countries such as those, and there, seek tounderstand 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 ifyou’re not comfortable talking about religion.
Canada recently putHungary on a list of countries that are very unlikely to produce refugees. Howmuch effort do you put into monitoring liberal democracies that are slidingtoward illiberalism?
Hungary is a persistent concern forus because of the inconsistency of their language and pronouncements, and thelack of concrete action to halt the spread of anti-Semitism. Countries that aresliding away from established liberal-democratic principles, yes, we take greatconcern in that. But all countries have their warts; Canada has its warts. Buteven though we’ve had challenges around religious intolerance and lack ofrespect for different religious communities, it’s through the growth of amulticultural, multi-faith society grounded in functioning democraticinstitutions, a bill of rights and then subsequently a charter of rights andfreedoms, that we articulate what we want our society to be governed by…That’swhat a democracy is fundamentally about. [In order] to have a nuancedunderstanding of religious freedom, we also need to bear close attention tofreedom of expression, press freedom, freedom of association, equality ofrights between men and women.
What hasyour 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 foreigngovernments, faith communities, human rights organizations and a wide array ofcivil society groups. I’ve travelled a lot over the better part of the lastyear-and-a-half, where I’ve had a chance to engage in that type of advocacy, tohave some frank conversations with governments, to raise issues of concern toCanada where religious freedom have been violated.
On the policy side, we’ve begun to develop a series ofapproaches to different countries to better understand what the dynamics inthose countries are, and how, through policy, we can address those issues. We’veissued several dozen statements now, on different situations. In some cases,our advocacy through those actions—along with our allies—has secured therelease of those facing persecution. For example, we were very active in thecase of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishaq, who was wrongly accused of apostasy inSudan. We also worked to raise the profile of a Sri Lankan Muslim human rightsactivist, Assad Salih, and called for his release—he was being imprisoned underSri Lanka’s draconian prevention of terrorism law, and his first port of callafter being released was the Canadian High Commission, to thank Canada forspeaking on his behalf.
On the programming side, the vast majority of our annualbudget of $5 million annual budget, $4.25 million, is dedicated to ourreligious freedom fund. This is a fund whereby we support projects in a varietyof countries to try to get to some of the underlying issues behind religiouspersecution and try and address some of the concerns and elements that we hopecan bring about a shift in the behaviour of certain countries. Our latest call—inwhich we called for anybody to submit proposals—resulted in over 200 [submissions].Anyone can still submit unsolicited proposals to the religious freedom fund.
Whatcriteria do you use in deciding which proposals to follow up on?
The projects have to be specifically focused on advancing religiousfreedom overseas; while we can support Canadian organizations that do this, thework has to be done overseas. Our programming can support projects that raiseawareness and activities that provide education on freedom of religion andbelief, which includes supporting curriculum develop that would addresscurricula in certain countries that are prejudiced toward specific faithcommunities. We can support research that would encourage certain foreign government’sengagement in the area of respect for religious diversity and advancingpluralism within their societies. Most of the countries we’re engaging with,like Canada, are pluralist—they’re multi-faith, they’re multicultural. So we’dlike to share the Canadian experience of a generally well-functioningmulticultural, multi-faith society.
You wereonce asked about your staff—their diversity and religious affiliation. You saidyou didn’t really know because it wasn’t something that was talked about inyour office. Generally, in the culture of the civil service, there is aresistance to talking about such things, which strikes me as being ratherironic in your context, given the mission of your office. Why is this somethingthat people feel reticence about?
I don’t think that people feel reticent about it, and maybein my response to the question I didn’t phrase my thinking about it very well, becauseI was kind of taken off-guard by the question. By no means is there aprohibition on discussing religion in the office; otherwise, we wouldn’t beable to do our work. But I think that in all aspects of society— in ourprofessional lives, in academic endeavours—those of us that are faithful shouldbe open about our religious faith, or if you have a particular philosophicalbelief that is not a religious belief, you should be able to be open about thatas well. That’s freedom of expression; that’s freedom of religion. However, Idon’t go out of the way to raise the personal religious beliefs of my staff ona regular basis. If they want to talk about it, great— I’m happy to have thatconversation and to have it as part of our environment. But I know some of themare more private about their beliefs, and that’s fine.
I think sometimes, in the workplace—and I’m speakinggenerally 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 shouldhave the freedom to do that, and I personally believe that the freedom isthere. But some people just choose not to afford themselves of that freedom.They’re afraid of how that might be perceived.
Isuspect the question that was raised was about trying to establish that thereare lots of different religious opinions involved…
Exactly. And we’re activelyengaging with all these different religious communities in the world and herein Canada. It is not a criterion of the office to have so many Christians, somany Muslims, so many Jews, so many Hindus. First of all, that’s againstfederal government hiring policy, so we can’t have quotas. We seek to haverepresentation in terms of male/female, visible minorities,Francophones/Anglophones—these are the principles of public service employmentat the federal level, so we seek to do as best we can to do that.