Canada’s religious freedom ambassador: ‘Human rights are not a Western liberal democracy preserve.‘

| January 5, 2014 | 0 Comments

Diplomat_Jan2014_0001Andrew Bennett is Canada’s first ambassador to the office of religious freedom, a position he accepted in February 2013. A devout Catholic, he  studied history at Dalhousie University and McGill University and completed a PhD in political science at the University of Edinburgh. He then worked for Natural Resources Canada, Export Development Canada, the Privy Council Office and was a professor at Augustine College in Ottawa. Today, he serves as subdeacon and cantor with the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the Baptist Ukrainian-Catholic Shrine. He’s vice-president and chairman of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute Foundation and is a godparent to five children. He sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Diplomat Magazine: How do you define your job?
Andrew Bennett: I received a fairly broad mandate: to promote and defend religious freedom overseas as part of Canada’s foreign policy. We’ve done that by setting up the office and defining roles.
[We’ve defined it as] threefold. There’s the advocacy side, which is my role as the ambassador — to go overseas to countries where there are significant issues and violations of religious freedom and to gather information about what’s going on there and also to speak out and present the Canadian view of why it’s so important that freedom of religion is defended. And then, it also means engaging our allies, who are strong defenders of freedom of religion.

Egyptian Copts, those who’ve followed these monks, photographed at the beginning of the 20th Century, are on Andrew Bennett’s radar.

Egyptian Copts, those who’ve followed these monks, photographed at the beginning of the 20th Century, are on Andrew Bennett’s radar.

Then there’s the policy side, the other classic aspect of diplomacy, which is beginning to engage through different policy tools for, first, raising awareness about why it’s important that Canada is defending freedom of religion and then looking at how we can engage countries where there are significant challenges.
The third aspect of the mandate is what we are going to do on the ground in terms of concrete outcomes. What kinds of concrete actions can we take? What kinds of programs can we launch? We have an annual budget of $5 million, of which $4.25 million is to be dedicated to programming in these countries. The rest goes toward running the office. We have a team of five, including myself.

Tibetan activists demonstrate in Brussels for a free Tibet.

Tibetan activists demonstrate in Brussels for a free Tibet.

DM: Freedom of religion or conscience is in our Charter of Rights; freedom of religion is also in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You’ve called it a base freedom. So why is your position just being created now?
AB: That’s a perfectly valid question. I think the reason it was created at this juncture is because we’re seeing significant increases in violations of religious freedom around the world. Pew Research is a Washington-based, non-advocacy NGO that focuses on religion and public life and conducts quantitative and qualitative analysis that looks at the situation of freedom of religion in the world. They’ve developed two very useful indicators around two components that lead to violations of religious freedom. We see in their research, and that of the Hudson Institute, that the degree of religious persecution has been increasing over the last decade.

Nilson Tuwe Huni Kuı˜, an indigenous leader from the Western Amazon in Brazil, delivered an invocation at World Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations in February.

Nilson Tuwe Huni Kuı˜, an indigenous leader from the Western Amazon in Brazil, delivered an invocation at World Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations in February.

Pew’s latest research demonstrates that 75 percent of the world’s population live in countries that have high or very high restrictions on religious freedom. That’s one-third of the countries in the world, but a lot of them are very populous — China, Pakistan. And we’re also seeing increasing social hostilities against communities and so I think in looking at that, the Canadian government decided Canada’s been a long-time defender of human rights, here’s a right coming under increasing threat. There’s an insistence that Canada would want to take action. It’s what Canada does.

DM: Is atheism something you feel you need to protect?
AB: It’s in a unique position. When we speak of freedom of religion, implicit in that is the freedom not to have a religious belief. Some will talk about ‘freedom of religion or belief’ to encapsulate that but I believe freedom of religion suffices. Freedom of religion is your human free will in matters of faith and that includes the freedom not to have any particular religious faith. I will defend [that]. When you look in the world, you do find atheists — who are in certain countries where there is an official religion that is enforced by the state — who are open about it and face persecution for that. There’s a situation right now in Kazakhstan, where an atheist blogger is being targeted and I spoke out on that in a recent speech at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Toronto. We will speak out on it but I think it’s important to realize that the vast majority of people who are being persecuted because their freedom of religion is violated are people of faith, so that is where our principal focus will be.

DM: Your mandate is to speak to and about other countries in defending freedom of religion. What about the Charter of Quebec values?
AB: My mandate is to focus on freedom of religion being violated abroad and when we’re talking about that in other countries, we’re talking about people being killed by their governments or by communities within that society that are targeting them because they disagree with their religious beliefs. That’s not happening in Canada. We are able to promote freedom of religion as Canadian diplomats because in Canada we have robust institutions — parliament, legislatures, the courts, civil society — that have also stood up to defend freedom of religion. As citizens in Canada, we all  have a responsibility to uphold all freedoms, regardless of what they may be. With regards to the situation in Quebec, there are other people within the government of Canada who have the mandate to speak out on that issue. I’ll leave it to them to do that work.

DM: How do you decide where your budgetary priorities should be?
AB: We rely heavily on the missions to advise of the situations in those countries and we ask if there are partners — NGOs, civil society groups — that are doing work to advance inter-religious dialogue, sponsoring projects that support education, to get people to see the others as fellow citizens. We work actively with our missions to engage those partners to see if they’d be willing to propose a project that would be funded by the religious freedom fund — the $425 million. They submit proposals [through a website] and we evaluate them. We also receive proposals from multilateral organizations.
Minister [John] Baird, at the end of August, announced a number of projects, one of which is with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They’ll be working with countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus to talk to governments about how you need to have a full understanding of what freedom of religion is. They can also submit proposals for us to assess. We also have different faith communities, civil society groups in Canada, who do work abroad. They can also submit proposals. The proposals go to an intra-departmental project selection committee made up of the different geographic desks at DFATD, people with programming expertise, and people from the finance and legal side. We decide which to recommend to the minister.
We’ve received a lot of proposals, upwards of 100, over the last number of months. We announced a bunch in August and we’ll be announcing more in the coming weeks and months. We have one announced for Nigeria, in Plateau State, which has been the scene of significant sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims, where thousands have been killed over the last decade. This project was initially launched under CIDA. It brings these groups together for dialogue. We’re also working with an Indonesian group called Setara. They are going to be developing different mechanisms to monitor violations of freedom of religion in Indonesia.
We aren’t trying to cover the whole waterfront, but we’re focusing on certain countries where we can have a deep level of engagement, where we can speak with governments, civil society and faith communities. Nigeria would be one. We hope the same for Indonesia and  Pakistan. There are other countries where we won’t be able to have that level of dialogue, such as Iran, where it will be very pointed and frank statements by myself and [John Baird] to condemn violations of religious freedom. Dialogue, I think, would be very difficult, although we’re always looking for ways to have dialogue with the Iranian people. China is obviously a very difficult country with regards to religious freedom. There’s a very high level of government restrictions on almost all religious groups. There we hope to have a dialogue and find work that will broaden the understanding of why it’s so important.

DM: How many countries have you been to, or reached?
AB: In terms of countries I’ve visited: Kazakhstan, Poland, Hungary, Turkey. I’ve also visited countries that are allies, such as the UK, France, the U.S. For the first half of 2014, we’re looking at Nigeria, Pakistan and then we’ll probably do a swing through southeast Asia. Again, [we’re] looking at countries where we can have a deeper impact. My policy and programming officers can also go and lay groundwork. We also reach out to foreign representatives here in Canada. I’ve met with representatives of all our allies: Germany, France, U.S., Holy See, the Netherlands, Norway. I’d say I’ve met a good few dozen [heads of mission] in total. I’ve got a good relationship with the Turkish ambassador, the Indonesian ambassador, the Ukrainian ambassador. The Russian ambassador [Georgiy Mamedov]  reached out to me, and the [former] Israeli ambassador [Miriam Ziv] did, too.
So even though I don’t have a domestic mandate, there is reaching out to the diplomatic corps and also to the different faith communities here in Canada. You have faith communities that are in the diaspora from these countries where there’s a lot of persecution going on. I want to understand their concerns, what they’re hearing. They’re good sources for intelligence-gathering. When Minister Baird told me he wanted me to reach out to them, I told him that I wanted to do more than that — that I wanted to get to know them, and pray with them. So I’ve had a chance to meet with almost all the religious communities in Canada at least once. There are dozens — just Christians alone. I’ve met the major ones. We’ve had contacts with Catholics, the United Church, the Copts and other Middle Eastern Christian communities. I’ve had good meetings with the Sunni and Shiite clerics, with Tibetan Buddhists, the Baha’i community, the Sikhs.
I enjoy meeting these groups. I’m a devout Catholic and I think there’s some skepticism about how a devout Catholic will fit in when he has to protect and defend all these different communities. A lot of these groups didn’t know me from a hole in the wall and I think they thought ‘ambassador, civil servant’ but then when they find out I’m a man of faith and I’m very devout, any barriers that are there come down immediately. I’ve had very deep dialogues with these communities. We’ve talked about religious freedom but also what it means to have faith. It’s also important to engage a lot of the different faith communities well-established in Canada, whether the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Mennonites, the Jewish community, because they typically have organizations that can sponsor projects abroad. We want to work with them.

DM: When you’re travelling, can you describe the general conversation back and forth, especially if you’ve spoken with leaders from countries where religious persecution is a serious problem? Was Kazakhstan one?
AB: Yes. Turkey as well. That wasn’t the easiest conversation to have with government there. One thing that kind of guides me is that we talk a lot about having principled foreign policy and the principles that guide that are Canadian values, freedom, democracy and human rights. I would take that even further and say these are universal principles that speak to a particular truth. What we believe in Canada and what we champion in terms of human rights and freedoms, these are not simply the preserve of Western Liberal democracies. These rights have a universal character and we need to be able to speak confidently about those rights in countries where they are violated.
In Kazakhstan and Turkey, I was raising issues where freedom of religion was being violated, including very specific cases where different communities were facing significant government restrictions on their ability to fully live out their faith, publicly and privately. It’s not always very well received, but we shouldn’t shy away from our principles by saying ‘Well, that’s just how that country does things.’ If that country is violating fundamental freedoms, we need to be there to point to those truths.
Sometimes they’ll throw things back in your face — basically ‘How dare you come and preach to us?’ Often they get their backs up a bit, but again, I think it all has to be couched in saying ‘These are the issues we see, we’re raising them with you and we’d like to do that in an ongoing dialogue.’ In some countries that won’t be possible, but I think in most, we will be able to have that dialogue.

DM: Have you made any progress? If so, what?
AB: I’m not so naïve to think that things are going to change overnight but I think by having continuing dialogue, we can sort of move the yardstick a bit. One initial success we did have was in Sri Lanka. There’s a case where a prominent Muslim leader was arrested by the Sri Lankan authorities and was held and not being given full access to family. He was brought in on a prevention of terrorism-type act, on some fairly spurious charges. We protested immediately, issued a statement, had a conversation with the Sri Lankan high commissioner. A few weeks later, he was released and his first stop was at our high commission in Colombo to thank Canada for speaking out.
We also released a statement about the imprisonment of Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi in Iran. He’s a moderate Shiite cleric who has challenged the Khamenei regime’s approach to fusing Shia Islam with the state. He’s been held in the notorious Evin prison for quite some time. Calling for his release, we received tremendous feedback from the ex-pat community here, thanking us for taking a stand. So it’s important that we do make statements.
We have to do things in addition to that. In diplomacy, we make these statements — for example, calling on the Egyptian government to make sure there’s sufficient security to protect Copts against violence. We need to continue to make those statements. We need to use all the tools at our disposal.

DM: How many other countries have such an office? Do you all meet?
AB: So, it’s no great surprise that our closest allies in this regard are the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The U.S. has an Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department. They also have a commission on international religious freedom, which is a congressionally appointed body. Those are two of my principal points of contact in the United States and unlike the Canadian model — this office exists through a decision of the machinery of government — in the U.S., those two bodies exist by virtue of a statute. There’s also the office of faith-based initiatives within the State Department, which I’ll be engaging as well. They work with faith communities in the U.S. with an eye to foreign policy. There’s also Ira Forman, who is the president’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. The U.S. has many different points of contact. In the UK, they don’t have an officer per se, but they do have a minister of state, Baroness [Sayeeda Hussain] Warsi. She has a domestic focus and is within the foreign office so she also has responsibilities overseas. Other countries don’t have offices, but they have ambassadors for human rights with freedom of religion as their core component — that would include France and the Netherlands. I’ve had many meetings in France and many meetings in the U.S. I expect in the new year to be meeting with counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands as a pitstop on my way back from some other places.

DM: What countries make you most hopeful? Least hopeful?
AB: I think Nigeria represents a country where there’s a lot of progress taking place. The population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The federal government doesn’t have any restrictions on freedom of religion per se, but you have all these social hostilities. The governments at the federal and state level are really trying to deal with the situation, not only the sectarian violence, but also the pernicious activities of Boko Haram. It’s a place where Canada has a long history of engagement. I think we can do things there. I’d say the same thing about Indonesia. There’s been tremendous work done, through former CIDA-funded projects, including one with McGill University, where they’re working with different Islamic universities in Indonesia. I think Turkey could also be one of those countries.
The major challenges would be countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China. At the present time, Egypt is going through tremendous period of transition. I’ve got very good relations with Ambassador  Wael Aboul-Magd in Ottawa, for whom I have tremendous respect, and certainly the Coptic Orthodox community here, in the UK and the U.S. I’ve reached out to them. Egypt is a country where it’s very challenging now, but I think there are opportunities over time, as the transition moves forward, for us to engage and we’d very much like to do so.

DM: Can you share any stories from the field?
AB: I’ve met so many wonderful people.  I was just in Turkey and I got to meet with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. He’s the first among equals from all the Orthodox patriarchs in the world. He’s the 207th successor to Apostle Andrew, so the presence of Christianity in Turkey goes back to the first century.

DM: So it’s a bit like meeting the Pope?
AB: Yes. And I’m an Eastern Catholic, a Ukrainian Catholic and so our mother church is actually the Church of Constantinople. It was wonderful meeting him, to be able to talk to him about freedom of religion and to see how he, not only as the ecumenical patriarch, the Greek-Orthodox archbishop, but also as a citizen of Turkey, says: ‘We have every right to have freedom of religion and to be legally recognized in Turkey as a community, and to have fewer restrictions on our community.’ And then, to just engage with him as a very holy man and a man of great wisdom, that was a wonderful opportunity.
One of the most meaningful interactions I’ve had was actually in Toronto, through the work of [Rev.] Majed El Shafie of One Free World International. He is a convert to Christianity. He was an Egyptian Muslim who converted and had to flee Egypt. He’s now a tireless and fearless defender of people facing persecution in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia. He met with me in Toronto and brought with him a young man in his 20s, an Afghan Christian. He had converted from Islam and was part of a small house church in Kabul. He was arrested by the Afghan authorities on a charge of apostasy. He was given away by people who knew him and he was taken to the police station where he was brutally assaulted and tortured.
And there he was, sitting in front of me with his young wife and their first-born child and at that meeting, well, I heard his whole story and then [Rev.] El Shafie said: ‘Is there anything you’d like to ask him?’ I’m usually a pretty stoic, solid sort of guy. I just broke down because there I was, confronted face-to-face by someone who’d faced tremendous persecution. He’d been welcomed to Canada and is now making his life here. In the midst of all that we do as diplomats — the advocacy, the programming work, the policy — you can’t forget that you’re doing it for people like him who are suffering and have suffered. And that’s why Canada has to do what it does.

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