Andrew Bennett, a Christian college dean and former civil servant, has been named ambassador for Canada's Office of Religious Freedom, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today.
"Around the world, violations of religious freedom are widespread and they are increasing," Harper said in a speech at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque in Maple, Ont., north of Toronto.
"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 practise their faith without fear of violence and repression."
Harper first promised the new branch of the Foreign Affairs Department during the last federal election campaign.
Bennett, a Catholic, is dean of Augustine College, a Christian liberal arts college in Ottawa that graduates about 16 students a year. He has a PhD in politics from the University of Edinburgh and a master of arts in history from McGill University in Montreal.
Paul Bramadat of the University of Victoria told CBC Radio's Louise Elliott that Augustine College has a unique position on education — to basically return education to a time before "the acid of modernity," as it says on the college's website. Bramadat also noted that the college's purpose seems to be to prepare students to enter a secular world perceived as hostile.
The college's website says, "Augustine College accepts the model of education that reigned for millennia, until the modern age began to dismantle that tradition."
Before his appointment at Augustine College, Bennett was a government bureaucrat, working for the deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs. He later worked at the Export Development Corporation, and at the Privy Council Office.
Speaking to a group representing various religions, Harper told the story of meeting Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister from Pakistan whom the prime minister described as someone who took great risks to defend persecuted religious minorities in his country, including his fellow Christians. Three weeks after that meeting, Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad, Harper said. A militant Islamist group took responsibility for his killing.
It has been said that Bhatti was the inspiration for the founding of the Office of Religious Freedom.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters, Harper denied the office would be modelled after its U.S. counterpart, which has been accused of being biased towards Christians.
Harper said that Canada is "a very different country." He added, "Obviously, one of the reasons we're holding this event here today and being hosted by the Ahmadiya Muslim community is to make it very clear that this is not an office to promote a particular religion, this is an office to promote religious diversity and religious tolerance around the world."
Bennett, in his early forties, told reporters he didn't see the office as promoting Christianity over other religions. "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."
Janet Epp Buckingham, of Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., who was invited to attend the announcement, said that Bennett "is young, he will have a steep learning curve, and as a professor, will have to come to grips with the reality of religious persecution as it exists around the world." She continued, "University professors tend to be, as we put it, in the ivory tower. They're a little bit separated from the cut and thrust of politics. He will be very much under scrutiny, so it will be a very challenging role."
In 2011, a closed-door meeting about the office, organized by the government, was criticized by some scholars after it turned out four of the six panellists being consulted were drawn from Christian religions, with the other two being Jewish and Baha'i.
Don Hutchinson, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, who was one of the six panellists consulted by the government, told CBC that different religious groups had been widely consulted.
But Colin Clay, an Anglican priest in Saskatoon, who heads both Multi-Faith Saskatoon and Multi-Faith Saskatchewan, said he didn't know of any consultation with his groups and first found out about the proposed Office of Religious Freedom by reading about it in a newspaper.
Asked if the office might be slanted toward Christians, Hutchinson said, "The most persecuted faith on the planet is the Christian faith community. So in striking a balance, one would have to look at the Orthodox or Roman Catholic or evangelical communities as well as the needs of the various Muslim communities and the Baha'i and other groups."
Arvind Sharma, who teaches comparative religion at McGill, told CBC that one of the reasons Christian faiths are the most persecuted is because they are also the most proselytizing in many parts of the world.
"Conversion can mean two things when related to religious freedom", he said. "My right to change my religion and somebody else's right to ask me to change my religion. The person who is trying to convert somebody may use deception, may use threat, may use temptation and so on."
However, Sharma also said, "I see a great opportunity because the office is being set up in Canada and Canada is a self-consciously multi-cultural society, so it has this great opportunity to define religious freedom in a way which is inclusive, which takes the views of all the religions in the world into this view and not just the missionary religions."
'It must not become Christian-centric'
Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a human rights advocate and his party's critic on human rights, welcomed the office and noted that religious freedom is a "fundamental human right under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
However, he warned, "it must not become Christian-centric, or it must not appear to prefer a particular religion. In other words, there has to be an egalitarian approach."
Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, said in a press release, "In regions where this office is likely to be active, religion often conflicts with our understanding of other important human rights – including LGBTTQ and women’s rights. This government must explain how it will guarantee that it does not feed a perception that religious rights are supreme."
Paul Dewar, the NDP's critic for foreign affairs, issued a press release Tuesday, saying, "The Office of Religious Freedoms, as introduced today, represents both a broken Conservative promise and a missed opportunity. Conservatives had repeatedly promised a democratic development agency, but they broke that promise and now they're moving forward on a much more limited and narrow approach."
Dewar noted that Bennett was chosen to lead the agency without any consultation with Parliament or opposition parties.