Toronto Star: Meet Canada’s defender of the faiths

Sikhs are also impressed. “Bennett has taken the time to understand the faith and concerns we have for co-religionists abroad,” said Balpreet Singh Boparai of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. “We brought up issues we are facing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, religious freedom in India and banning of turbans in France. He listened closely. I think he is doing a marvelous job.”

By:  Foreign Affairs Reporter, Published on Fri Feb 14 2014

OTTAWA—The bleak winter sun streams in through the windows of the fourth-floor government office, framing Andrew Bennett in a hazy halo of light.

Which is appropriate, because Bennett, a boyish and telegenic 41, is the ambassador in charge of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, the body appointed a year ago by the Harper government to draw Canada’s line in the sand against religious violence, intolerance and repression overseas.

And it’s all with a modest staff of five, and equally modest budget of $5 million, $4.2 million of which is earmarked for a fund to support global religious communities that are “facing intolerance or persecution in their country.”

The challenges are massive. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life project, the level of religious hostility throughout the world is the highest it has recorded over the past six years.

In the past week’s headlines alone, tens of thousands of Muslims have fled Christian militias in the Central African Republic, while Muslims killed Christians and burned homes. In Iraq, Shiite militias’ attacks on Sunnis and reprisal killings threaten a new civil war. In Egypt, Islamist militants have attacked security forces during an intensifying military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, the shrinking Christian community is besieged and being shelled.

“Pew says that today roughly one-third of countries either have high restrictions on religious practice or social hostilities are high,” says Bennett. “When you look at it in terms of numbers, it’s roughly 75 per cent of the world’s population.”

And he adds, “one reason this office was established was because of the trend we’re seeing to the targeting of religious communities throughout the world.”

In Canada, however, the office is still little-known.

Although Bennett has over the past year met officials, diplomats and religious groups in 10 countries, rebuked governments from Kazakhstan to Sri Lanka and met leaders of a spectrum of faiths, the fact that his office exists is met with a shrug by some Canadians and skepticism by others.

“You have to see it as the Conservatives looking to build a winning coalition that can deliver a majority,” says Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research. “I believe the strategy is to rely on the core support of fiscally conservative voters, and graft on top of that special issue and interest groups, which could be faith or culturally based.”

“I know they are explicitly trying to target evangelicals,” adds Andrew Grenville, chief research officer for Angus Reid Public Opinion. “It’s a relatively small but not insignificant part of the population. But when you’re trying to go from 38 to 40 per cent they are very important — and they also get out and vote.”

None of that daunts Bennett. A dedicated Catholic who once studied in a seminary, he shifted from Roman to the more formal Eastern Catholicism, where the liturgy is chanted as in ancient Byzantine rites.

In public and in private Bennett is a True Believer, fiercely devoted to his faith. A subdeacon in Ottawa’s Holy Cross Ukrainian Catholic Chaplaincy, he told the Catholic Register, “we’ve tried to bring back some of what were originally monastic practices into the life of a parish.”

Choosing the Ukrainian church, he admits, was unusual for someone of Scots-Irish background. “It says a lot about Canada and our wonderful diversity of culture and faiths. That a young guy from north Toronto who grew up in a Catholic home and went to an Anglican boys’ school should find himself a Ukrainian Catholic at 30 is pretty interesting.

“I’m a Ukrainian Greek Catholic, and the church in Canada is so well integrated in the fabric of society that for the Canadian Christian experience it’s a good spot to be.”

When Bennett was chosen as ambassador for the office’s first three-year term, he was dean of Augustine College, a private Christian school in Ottawa, and earlier a federal bureaucrat. His doctorate degree, from University of Edinburgh, was in political science. He has also studied theology, and for a “period of time” entered a seminary.

In an age where questioning faith is a given, Bennett views secularism with caution, walking a fine line between church and state — a line that worries some who want to maintain Canada’s traditional, but still contentious, separation of powers.

“In Canada and I’d say the liberal western democracies, we’ve pushed any expression of faith so far into the private sphere in the last half-century or so that we’ve sometimes forgotten how to have that faith-based discourse, and engage faith,” he argues. “In fact, the majority of Canadians would identify as having a religious faith.”

And he maintains that the new office isn’t just symbolic, a hollow nameplate on the foreign affairs department’s door. “My colleagues in the foreign service have been dealing with religious freedom issues for decades,” he says. “But in our office not only are we speaking to a growing trend of religious persecution, but we’re supporting (their) efforts in monitoring and speaking out against it.”

Created to fulfil a 2011 Conservative campaign promise, Ottawa’s Office of Religious Freedom has antecedents in America, where the Clinton administration’s 1998 International Religious Freedom Act created a U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. A separate Commission on International Religious Freedom of 10 members was formed to advise Congress and the president. Both are more muscular than the fledgling body in Ottawa.

“In the U.S. they also have an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives,” Bennett says with a smile. “There’s a special envoy on post-Holocaust issues, and an envoy on persecution of Christians. In true Canadian fashion we’re very economical. We house them all in one shop, and it works very well.”

Nevertheless, the fact that Ottawa’s first ambassador on religion is Christian — and the focus of much of his work on the persecution of Christians — has raised suspicions about Tory political motives.

Others say that the attention is long overdue. According to Pew, Christians are harassed in the largest number of countries worldwide.

“I was one of several on a panel who strongly advocated for the creation of the office,” says Frank Dimant of the Jewish advocacy and human rights organization B’nai Brith Canada. “The media in general ignore the persecution of Christians, but massacres and the blowing up of churches are almost daily occurrences.”

He adds, “we should be looking at where the animosity is coming from.” It’s a reference to radical Islam, which has targeted religious minorities of a number of faiths.

Muslim issues are among the biggest challenges for Bennett. The community itself is divided. And although he has engaged with Ahmadiyya and Ismaili sects, which have strong representation in Canada, as well as more mainstream groups, some others are less impressed.

“I am an expert in Shia studies, but no one called to consult me on my views,” said Liyakat Takim, Sharjah chair in Global Islam at McMaster University. “There is tremendous religious oppression of Shia Muslims, for instance in Bahrain, which Canada considers a friendly country. I don’t hear them speaking out there.”

Amin Elshorbagy, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, says the emphasis on Muslim minorities has made consultation limited. “It comes back to a balanced perspective. In the past the voice of Canada was heard because it was perceived as a neutral country.”

Pleasing all of the people even a fraction of the time is difficult for politicians. For Bennett, who deals with one of the world’s most volatile and emotional issues, it’s virtually impossible.

His progress in combating global religious repression is made more difficult by the refusal of powerful countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss it, and by the touchy diplomatic relations they have with Canada.

“Our whole raison d’etre is to engage where we can,” Bennett says. That may mean simply reminding repressive countries of their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rights, he adds, that should include missionary activity. “The acid test of whether a country recognizes religious freedom is ‘Do you have the freedom to change your religion?’”

His mandate is also to defend the freedom to reject religious faith. In countries like Pakistan and Iran, conviction under apostasy and blasphemy laws can mean death.

“We’ve been pushing (the Office of Religious Freedom) to defend apostates who have left religion, people who are atheists in countries where they face the death penalty,” says Justin Trottier of the Canadian Secular Alliance.“Other than flowery language about their stand on atheism they haven’t done anything to back up their claims.”

Bennett maintains that freedom from religion is also a human right to be defended, and he has spoken out for an atheist blogger in Kazakhstan.

He has had discussions with Pakistani politicians on the blasphemy laws, which have sparked fatal attacks on those who have spoken out against them. Although he sees little possibility of short-term change, he is urging a more tightly controlled application of the law, which is often used to settle worldly scores. “I think there is a genuine desire to address the situation,” he says. “Hopefully over time we can engage in dialogue that leads to reform.”

China, strenuously wooed by Ottawa for trade contracts, is a different challenge for an envoy charged with speaking out on a subject that raises diplomatic hackles.

There, religion is looked on as a potential threat, Communist Party members must be atheists and government bodies tightly regulate the practice of five “recognized” religions. Crackdowns have worsened against Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, as well as the Falun Gong sect. Pew’s recent report rated religious hostility in China as “high” for the first time.

“The current situation in China is not acceptable,” says Bennett. “In Canada we need a multi-faceted policy approach about commercial relations and bilateral interests, but we need to also emphasize repeatedly the human rights aspect. I have no problem speaking frankly in any country where we have concerns about religious freedom.”

Those countries include Kazakhstan, where the Christian minority has been targeted and religious materials censored. In Ukraine, Bennett criticized intimidation of Catholic university students and administration.

In Turkey he met the Patriarch of Constantinople and discussed the challenges facing Christians there and in the Middle East. And he has protested the imprisonment of Iran’s moderate Grand Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi and helped to obtain the release of a Muslim leader detained in Sri Lanka.

The Office of Religious Freedom has launched a project in Indonesia, where Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been brutally attacked by Islamic extremists. A second of two projects will begin this year in Nigeria — a country dangerously divided between Christians and Muslims —bringing together Christian and Muslim women for dialogue that could lead to deeper understanding.

More projects will follow in the next two years, chosen from at least 100 proposals submitted to the Religious Freedom Fund.

But for critics of the Harper government the question remains: does planting Canada’s footprint on the turbulent territory of religious freedom most benefit the oppressed, or the politicians back home?

From Canada’s religious communities the reviews are generally positive.

“We are pleased with Bennett’s first year,” says Gerald Filson, chair of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation and public affairs director for the Baha’i Community of Canada. Members of the Baha’i faith suffer repression and discrimination in Iran.

“I was very impressed when I met him,” Filson said. “He’s realistic, focusing on countries where (Canada) can maybe make changes on the ground, like Belize, Indonesia and Turkey. To make religious freedom an international norm, any way you do it is good.”

Harper’s highly publicized recent visit to Israel, in which Bennett played a supporting role, won rave reviews from the Jewish community’s supporters of the Israeli government, as has Ottawa’s pro-Israel policy.

Coptic Christians are happy with the attention they have received from Bennett’s office. “It’s definitely important,” says Maher Rizkalla, who heads the Canadian Coptic Association’s Ontario chapter. “Religious discrimination is a problem throughout the Middle East and Egypt in particular. Through diplomacy I am sure we will get results.”

Sikhs are also impressed. “Bennett has taken the time to understand the faith and concerns we have for co-religionists abroad,” said Balpreet Singh Boparai of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. “We brought up issues we are facing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, religious freedom in India and banning of turbans in France. He listened closely. I think he is doing a marvelous job.”

Bennett has had dialogues with a number of Hindu religious representatives. But, says David Poopalapillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress – which includes many Canadian Hindus – the religious freedom office is “a good initiative that doesn’t go far enough. They should reach out to the community with public meetings, so people will know they are there.”

Critics are more outspoken as the federal election machine cranks up for 2015.

“It just looks like another example of cultivating the ethnic vote,” says Marci McDonald, author of

The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada. “The new face of the religious right in Canada is ethnic evangelical and Catholic congregations, which have grown thanks to immigrants, while mainstream church membership has plummeted.”

For Bennett, proving his office’s effectiveness is far from easy. Its major difficulty is measuring progress. Bitter religious strife, persecution and repression do not exist in isolation: they spring from disputes involving power, profit and territory. Issues that inch toward resolution, if at all, at a glacial pace.

Bennett’s conviction, like his faith, is unwavering.

“Regardless of what party is in power they have political interests,” he says. “For the Conservative party in the next election, I’m sure they will want to make reference to the fact that they opened an Office of Religious Freedom.

“But that’s not my concern. My concern is to advance the mandate I’ve been given, engage with those countries where we need to have a dialogue, and demonstrate that Canada, by advancing religious freedom in the world, is hopefully making a difference.”

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