A Christian college professor will be Canada’s first ambassador of religious freedoms and head of a new government office focused on international persecution.
Andrew Bennett, Dean of Augustine College in Ottawa, was named to the new position on Tuesday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially opened the Office of Religious Freedom.
The office will operate as part of the foreign affairs ministry and focus of international matters of religious tolerance.
“Around the world, violations of religious freedom are widespread and they are increasing,” Harper said. "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."
The Canadian Press reports that human rights groups and political opponents have accused the Conservative government of inappropriately injecting too much religion into their foreign policy. Others, of course, suggest such a focus is long overdue, calling for stronger measures against religious persecutors.
OpenCanada.org recently presented a compelling debate on both sides.
Wise-acres on social media, meantime, point out that the Office of Religious Freedoms sounds suspiciously like something from George Orwell's "1984."
The trumpet is loud for this new office, but is there much behind it?
After all, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade already addresses human rights issues abroad. The United Nations, of which Canada is a member, also has an office focused on freedom of religion.
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The office will focus on religious advocacy, analysis, policy development and programming. It will have an annual budget of $5 million for the next four years — a moderate cost to be sure.
According to Harper, the office will focus on, “protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat … and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.”
Ottawa has in the past pointed to the United States' religious freedoms office as a comparison, so perhaps an example of their workflow can be found there.
Since it was created in the 1990s under president Bill Clinton, the Office of International Religious Freedom has monitored discrimination worldwide, recommended U.S. policies and denounced regimes believed to persecute citizens on the basis of religious beliefs.
In 2011 the office released a report detailing the issues of religious freedom in various countries, including Canada.
The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom, and in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The government did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom.
Interestingly, the report on Canada also notes a proposal to establish an Office of Religious Freedom under a section titled, "Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom."
This brings us full circle to Tuesday’s announcement, and Canada’s new champion of international religious freedom.
Bennett, a Catholic, has been Dean of Augustine College since 2011 and previously worked with the government as an analyst and researcher. A short bio can be found here.
According to the Globe and Mail, three prospective candidates reportedly turned down the position before it was filled.
It is hard to criticize anything focused on protection religious freedom, but one wonders exactly how this new office will stand out in this already well-covered territory.