Canada appoints Catholic to religious freedom office

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(R-L) Dr. Andrew Bennett and PM Stephen Harper sit down with Lal Khan Malik prior to announcing the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom. Credit: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Andrew Bennett, the dean of a Christian college and a Catholic, was appointed Canada's first ambassador for religious freedom by the prime minister Feb. 19.

“My role is...building awareness about the issue of religious freedom abroad,” Bennett said at the announcement.

“This is not about a theological question, it's about a human issue, not a theological issue, so all religions, all people of faith and again those who choose not to have faith need to be protected, their rights need to be respected, so it's promoting that, that's the mandate.”

Canada's Office of Religious Freedom was promised by prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party during spring 2011 election campaigning. Fully two years later, that promise has been fulfilled.

Bennett's office is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and has a budget of $4.9 million and a staff of five.

The office's announcement was made at a mosque in the Toronto area. In creating the department, Harper highlighted the widespread and increasing violations of religious freedom around the world.

“Dr. Bennett is a man of principle and deep convictions and he will encourage the protection of religious minorities around the world so all can practice their faith without fear of violence and repression,” he said.

The prime minister continued, saying, “the freedom to worship according to one’s own conscience is at the root of our personalities and therefore, at the root of all of our liberties.”

He indicated that there is a “crucial” link between religious pluralism and the development of democracy.

Bennett and his religious freedom office will undertake advocacy, analysis, and policy development to promote the protection of all religious minorities in the world, not only Christians.

Bennett is a sub-deacon in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, one of the Byzantine rite Churches in communion with the Pope. He is the dean of Augustine College, a one-year, liberal arts institution modeled on C.S. Lewis' idea of “mere Christianity.”

Bennett holds a Ph. D. in political science and a masters in history. He has worked in the Canadian government as a civil servant for some time.

Augustine College's president, John Patrick, said of of the appointment: “I'm delighted. Whoever made the choice did their homework. He won't let them down.”

Harper indicated that the March 2011 assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti inspired the creation of the religious freedom office. Bhatti was a Pakistani Catholic who opposed that country's blasphemy laws, which are chiefly used to persecute non-Muslims.

Canada's Office of Religious Freedom is not modeled on its U.S. counterpart, Harper said. Bennett's American counterpart, Suzan Johnson Cook, began her post in May, 2011, after it had been vacant for over two years.

The Obama administration failed to name any nominee for the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom for some 17 months.

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