Sunday February 24, 2013

Ambassador of Religious Freedoms

Listen to Full Episode 16:40

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands with Dr. Andrew Bennett (right) and Muslim cleric Lai Khan Malik after naming Bennett ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom. (CP / Frank Gunn)

Most of us can agree that freedom of religion is fundamental to democracies. And the persecution of people because of their religion is a hallmark of repressive regimes or intolerant societies. So to demonstrate Canada's commitment to human rights, Stephen Harper's Conservatives promised a Canadian Office of Religious Freedom during the 2011 federal election campaign.

It would be modeled after the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom established in 1999. People have been expecting a formal announcement of that office, and an ambassador for religious freedom to run it, for months. Apparently, it's not the easiest post to fill. But finally, the prime minister made an announcement on Tuesday at a mosque north of Toronto.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper appointed Andrew Bennett as Canada's first Ambassador of Religious Freedom. Dr. Bennett is a Ukrainian Catholic and by all accounts a little known, but likeable and highly competent academic and former bureaucrat.

And now he's charged with the mission of "promoting freedom of religion or belief as a Canadian foreign policy priority." That includes advocating for, and promoting, religious minorities under threat of persecution ... and opposing religious intolerance.

Critics of the government's plans say the office is really intended to appease conservative Christian supporters ... or to court immigrant voters for whom religion is important. But others wonder about the very premise of promoting religious freedom abroad.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is the Chair of Religious Studies and professor of law at the University of Indiana. She's also the author of The Impossibility of Religious Freedom and she's part of a team funded by the Henry Luce Foundation to study the politics of religious freedom.