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Religious Freedom ambassador uncertain about his future

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett remains uncertain whether his three-year term will be renewed, but says he will continue to fight for religious freedom if his position ends.

“As a Catholic, this has very much become part of my vocation, the defence of religious freedom, and the promotion of a robust understanding of human dignity,” Bennett said in an interview.

“I will find ways to continue to be involved,” whether as ambassador or not, he said.

Bennett’s contract expires toward the end of February. As of late January, he had not met with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion to discuss whether he will continue as ambassador, or, for that matter, whether the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), instituted by the previous Conservative government, will remain.

In the mandate letter to Dion released shortly after last October’s election, there is no mention of religious freedom as a priority. While there is a nod to diversity and pluralism within Canada, the mandate’s international focus aims to “increase Canada’s support for United Nations peace operations and its mediation, conflict-prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.”

For Bennett, understanding the religious dimension is key to conflict resolution and peace.

Highly secular societies like Canada or those of Western Europe are “outliers” in a world where religion plays a huge role in every facet of life, he said. Religion informs not only cultural discourse, social action, economic, but also “a whole way of looking at the world.”

“When engaging in international relations, if we are not able to be conversant in the language of religious faith” and with how people relate to the world and within their own countries, “then we really have a serious diplomatic blind spot,” he said.

Over the past three years, he has helped to equip his colleagues “with the tools and language they need” to engage religious communities in a “good, nuanced,” and “winsome fashion.”  

The ORF has also funded a number of projects overseas to promote religious freedom in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Burma, and Bangladesh, with various partner groups in those countries.

Bennett sees two particular areas that need special attention.

First, Canadians in general and foreign service personnel in particular “need to have a much deeper understanding of Islam,” he said. This would include learning about the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam and the conflict between them; of the differing schools and branches within Sunni Islam; of the great diversity within predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bosnia, and Morocco; and of the many differing actors within Islam. This understanding has to go “beyond addressing questions around stabilization and countering violent extremism,” he said.

Canadians can engage more fully if they have “knowledge of some of the fundamental beliefs” and structures, he said, noting that as the Canadian Muslim community continues to grow and “become an integrated part of Canadian life,” that worldwide diversity is mirrored at home.

Second is the challenge of addressing the worldwide persecution of Christians, he said. “We must not shy away from talking about this issue,” he said.

Being frank about the degree of Christian persecution does not detract from the persecution suffered by other religious minorities, such as Yazidis, he said. Studies from organizations such as the Pew Forum and Aid to the Church in Need, and statements by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Pope Francis, show “the situation in the Middle East and in Africa is acute.”

Canada needs to be “much more robust in championing the plight of persecuted communities,” especially that of ancient apostolic churches “facing a serious existential threat to their very existence” in the Middle East, he said.

Bennett said the past three years as Religious Freedom Ambassador have given him a “greater humility” given the scope of the problems and challenges in some parts of the world that will require “multi-generational commitments by people of goodwill” to bring about respect for human dignity and religious freedom that will end persecution of minorities for their beliefs.

“We’ve only just begun,” he said, noting he was speaking “without prejudicing the decision Minister Dion might choose to take.”

“We still have as human beings and as Canadians a responsibility to help these people,” he said.

Bennett said the experience of meeting people who have experienced persecution first-hand has “opened my eyes to the immensity of the challenge and how pervasive persecution is in this world.”

His work has put him in touch with a range of belief communities, from religious groups to atheists and secular humanists who have also faced persecution.

He recalled a meeting with Yazidi men who showed him photographs of what they had experienced in Iraq. “Most of them were in tears,” Bennett said. “It affects you as a human being, never mind as a foreign policy actor.”
“You gain a great love for these people who are suffering,” he said.

Religious freedom advocates say they hope Bennett and the ORF will remain.

On Jan. 22, Canadian Jewish, Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim leaders issued a joint letter to Minister Dion in support of the ORF and Ambassador Bennett.

“The Office of Religious Freedom, under the capable stewardship of Ambassador Bennett, has proven an effective advocate in highlighting the issue of religious persecution, partnering with Diaspora communities in Canada, and raising our country’s profile as a world leader in human rights promotion on the international stage,” said the letter signed by Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel, World Sikh Organizatoin of Canada president Amritpal Singh Shergill, and Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Canada national secretary-public relations Asif Khan.

“Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world are the target of threats, discrimination, state persecution, or violence every day simply on the basis of their religion,” they wrote. “While we acknowledge that diverse communities are subject to persecution as a result of multiple factors, the suffering of religious minorities in numerous countries is particularly acute and often qualitatively different from other forms of discrimination.”

The leaders pointed out many Syrian refugees are “religious minorities targeted by ISIS on the basis of their faith.”

Other leaders have also weighed in.

Peter Bhatti, president of International Christian Voice (ICV), noted former prime minister Stephen Harper created the ORF in response to the assassination of his brother Shahbaz Bhatti, who served as Pakistan’s first cabinet minister tasked with defending religious minorities.

“In honour of his legacy, it’s important they continue this office,” to promote religious freedom, Bhatti said. ICV defends the rights of Pakistani Christians and other minorities both in Pakistan and among the Pakistani diaspora.

“In the beginning, it took a lot of effort to get this thing in place,” Bhatti said. “(Bennett) did a lot of work to introduce religious freedom. I think he should be given the chance to fulfil his goals.”

Imam Abdul Patel, who founded the Canadian Council of Imams and now serves as their interfaith director, has served on the ORF’s advisory board.

“It would be a good idea to keep it but with a broader focus, both inside Canada and outside,” Patel said. He would also like to see the ORF granted more power. “Right now it has no teeth.”

The ORF needs to play a bigger role in ensuring religious freedom inside Canada. He said the previous government “stigmatized or went after faith communities,” particularly Muslim communities, Patel said.

Patel noted the major role faith communities have played in building Canada. Canadians cannot go abroad preaching religious freedom if “we can’t practice religious freedom for everyone, for all faiths in Canada,” he said.

“On the surface nothing much appears,” he said. “We have more persecution of minorities continuing around the world. The office has not real power to influence any governments.”

However, if the ORF gets more power, Patel thinks Bennett should stay on. “He is the best man for the job.”

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