By Don Hutchinson

When Prime Minister Harper made the campaign promise to develop a uniquely Canadian Office of Religious Freedom I got excited! After the May 2011 vote The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada was ready to hold him to his word, hoping to see the fruition of an idea germinated and discussed more than a decade earlier. We fired off a proposal on how the office could develop, assessing lessons from the effort in the US and considering the experiences of other nations as well. During that process, we didn’t go it alone but “played well with others” from several faith communities – Christian and non – who had experience in monitoring, assisting and advocating on behalf of persecuted religious minorities.

I suspect it is this early, non-sectarian engagement that resulted in the invitation to be one of the panellists that presented at the October 2011 consultation in Ottawa. Of course, not everyone who would have liked to have been in the room was there but there were a lot of faith communities represented. The intent of the meeting was to start a conversation, and it certainly did! There was criticism in the media that the six panellists on the day included two Evangelicals, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Baha’i and an American (who had experience with the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom). Little attention was paid to the content of the conversation or its benefit to the government in beginning to plan for the new Office. And, little attention was paid to the continuing consultation that took place as Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney continued to meet with religious leaders across the country and around the world.

And then, the media attention turned to the duration of the delay. The clock was running and the operation of the Office was awaiting the appointment of an ambassador.

Yesterday, it was my privilege to attend the announcement of Dr. Andrew Bennett’s appointment as Ambassador for Religious Freedom. Again, there were people not in the room who I’m certain would have liked to be there; including Minister Baird who was in Peru.

So what do I think of the Ambassador? Ambassador Bennett has the heart and the smarts for this responsibility. He will do well. We will also now have the opportunity to contribute to the development of an active office rather than an idea.

Much has been written elsewhere about Ambassador Bennett’s personal faith expression as an Eastern rite Catholic; his service as Dean and Professor of Church History at Augustine College; and his experience working for government, including in the Privy Council Office. All of this situates him as a human being who understands religious belief, a key component of historic persecution and how to manage the development of a fledgling office with responsibility to both political and bureaucratic masters. Ambassador Bennett’s personal affability will also serve him well in interaction with Canada’s religious communities, an essential component of building the relationships to equip the Office’s focus on the rest of the world.

As Ambassador, Dr. Bennett will be responsible for establishing the priorities and direction for the office as he accepts the framework handed off from Minister Baird. So, what might that look like?

As the title suggests, it is anticipated the Ambassador will be involved in some level of diplomacy; the first of which may be in Canada. I hope the office will establish a multi-faith advisory council. The largest faith community in Canada, and the planet, is Christian – including the distinct traditions of Roman Catholic, Orthodox (including Greek, Coptic and Eastern rite, etc.), Traditional and Evangelical. Christians are also well documented to be the most persecuted on Earth. Canada also has a history of freedom of worship and practice for people from other faith communities as well. It will be important that an advisory council to the Ambassador be representative of this diversity, with particular attention to communities facing persecution outside Canadian borders. Establishing such a council would be a primary task.

Although the Office’s budget is relatively small, it has great capacity if working with the many non-governmental organizations already engaged on the issue. We have a great network of such organizations in Canada.

I expect the office will continue to advocate for the rights of religious minorities in other countries, as Minister Baird has done for the last 2 years. The faith of a person – including those who identify as having no religious belief – has proven irrelevant to Minister Baird’s engagement. This, I expect, will continue.

With over 2/3 of the world’s population identifying with a religious affiliation, it is valuable to have an office that might inform the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in regard to the religious dynamics in various nations and regions, including persecution of religious communities. This will benefit negotiations, particularly in light of Canada’s longstanding focus on human rights in relation to these departments.

I am also hopeful that the office will help to inform Canada’s immigration work, particularly in regard to refugee claimants alleging religious persecution; including, verification that the geographic region in question is one where religious persecution of that claimant’s religious community is taking place. Immigration officers cannot reasonably be expected to know what is going on in every country of the world, but they can reasonably be expected to evaluate refugee claims in light of the information before them. Hopefully, that information will include the type of briefing on religious persecution in the claimant’s place of origin that may best be prepared in an office that is regularly monitoring the issue.

Finally, what would a Canadian Ambassador be if he simply remained at home in Ottawa? I expect Ambassador Bennett will travel – to refugee camps where the persecuted seek safety; to nations where his presence might bring relief; and, to meet with government officials where Canada’s influence might be of benefit in facilitating those who live in fear to remain safely in their homes.

High hopes? You bet. The promise made almost two years ago was one of hopefulness for people living in Canada who enjoy freedom of religion and for those still living elsewhere with the daily threat of persecution simply because of their religious belief. Those people hold fast to hope.

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