An interview with Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom

Andrew Bennett (right), the Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom, speaking with Lloyd Mackey at 'Our Whole Society' in Vancouver.

Andrew Bennett (right), the Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom, speaking with Lloyd Mackey at ‘Our Whole Society’ in Vancouver.

Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom took part in Our Whole Society at UBC Robson Square late last month. Andrew Bennett ably explained his mandate to promote religious freedom in the face of “barbaric persecution” by ISIS/ISIL and in many other situations around the world. And he did not hesitate to express his personal faith.

Following is Andrew Bennett’s interview with Peter Stockland, senior director, publications and media with Cardus, and publisher of Convivium. It is re-posted by permission from the current issue of Convivium.

CONVIVIUM: I’d like to start by asking you to compare expectations versus the realities of the office after two years. What did you think was going to happen that hasn’t? What has happened that was in line with how you thought it was going to go? What are the pleasant surprises you’ve come across?

ANDREW BENNETT: It’s very rare in a civil service career to be given a brand new mandate by the government and told to run with it. So here’s this new Office of Religious Freedom, Ambassador Bennett. You’re in charge. Your mandate is to promote and defend religious freedom in the world. Here you go. Here are the core things we want you to deliver on; but how you do that, we trust you. Away you go.

I think expectations were very high from the beginning, not only within the government on delivering on this central foreign policy priority but also within faith communities in Canada as to what this new ambassador was going to do. I think expectations were also high among detractors of the office that this thing was going to fail, or not live up to expectations.

From the beginning, I’ve been very pleased with the support that has come from within the Department of Foreign Affairs itself. I mean, obviously there’s been the political support. But the support that’s come from the department has been very welcome, certainly for myself and for the team here in the office. I think the decision was very wise to appoint a civil servant, a non-partisan so that they were dealing with someone they could understand, and who understood them.

I am not a multi-headed fundamentalist. I am a civil servant who has a background in the Privy Council Office and in Crown corporations and who was asked to take on this role. Obviously I have some sort of connection with the [Foreign Affairs] Minister’s office. I’m a political appointee, governor-in-council appointee, but here I am situated within the department, and this is where I’m going to execute the mandate – from within the civil service.

I think one of the most pleasant things I’ve found about this job is that I’ve been able to go about advancing this mandate, with the support of my colleagues, and I’ve consistently seen it as part of my mandate to integrate the rest of the department into what we’re doing.

That includes all of our high commissions and embassies abroad, because they’re the ones that actually see what’s happening in the world in terms of violations of religious freedom. So we rely very heavily on them for their perspective. Doing that initial outreach to them, I think, was very important; and it has borne fruit.

Andrew Bennett with leaders of religious minority communities of Iraq and Syria last fall.

Andrew Bennett with leaders of religious minority communities of Iraq and Syria last fall.

I think a number of things have been surprising to me. I came into the position having a pretty good sense of the gravity of the situation in many parts of the world. But I don’t think I was prepared, nor was anyone in this department, for what’s happening now in Iraq and Syria with ISIS. No one, I think, really could have anticipated the depth of the barbarism and the speed at which this group spread in the region.

Likewise, if you’d told me a year and a half ago that I’d be focusing on religious freedom in the Ukraine, which has been invaded by Russia on two occasions, I think I would have been quite surprised.

So the challenge that I was asked to undertake, I knew it was going to be quite big. But the depth of that challenge has really only increased as a result of what we’re seeing in the world.

C: One of the things you must have to grapple with, both internally and on a global level is simply: What does religious freedom mean? Within Canada, we understand it through the lens of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and so on.

But beyond that, it’s very difficult to pin the jelly to the wall. There are voices that go further and ask what does religion even mean? Has that been a balancing act for you?

AB: I think I had a relatively clear idea, largely because it’s been a lived experience for me and for all Canadians. We live in a country where religious freedom is guaranteed in the Charter. It’s advanced by Parliament and by legislatures. It’s protected in the courts.

But it’s also the role of every citizen to speak out in defence of this freedom, as it’s the role of every citizen to speak out in defence of all freedoms. I think I’m definitely a Burkean. I think rights come with responsibilities. Just as we have responsibilities connected to our democratic rights to vote, to pay taxes, to serve on juries and so forth, there are also responsibilities that come with religious freedom.

I think part of that is to engage in the public sphere on questions of religion and faith. Because at the centre of religious freedom, as it’s defined internationally, is the freedom to privately and publicly profess your faith. It’s the freedom to engage in worship peacefully and securely. The acid test is the freedom to change your faith.

Countries that allow you to change your religion without harassment, I think they truly have religious freedom. It’s also the freedom to engage in missionary activity. Whether you’re a Mormon or you’re a Muslim or you’re a Christian, that’s also at the centre.

Also, it must be, and I’ve repeated this consistently, it must be the freedom to choose not to have any religious beliefs.

That’s the broad, international human rights covenantal definition of religious freedom that we can point to. When we advance religious freedom as Canada, we do so based on the Canadian experience and on the international understanding of religious freedom. The international understanding of religious freedom is a covenantal understanding, and it’s based in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

But again, it’s a lived experience. Every country is going to be challenged at different times by the question of religious freedom being usurped: Is my religious freedom being limited in some way or constrained?

But in Canada or the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia, where we have rule of law, where we have robust institutions that allow that debate to take place, we should not descend into some naive relativism where we say, well, there are religious freedom problems in Canada and there are religious freedom problems in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia.

I’m sorry, but the challenges that people face in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, in defending their religious freedom, are much graver than in a democracy.

C: I would like to dig down into that a little bit. I’ve heard the thesis put forward that in order to protect religious freedom, the good of religion must be communicated to fellow citizens.

My response is that that’s a very dangerous approach. If it’s freedom, we don’t have to prove the good. If we have to prove the good, it’s not freedom. That, to me, is as much an issue in front of an aggressively secular society.

It’s obviously not as physically dangerous, but my sense is we are moving to a world, even within Canada, in which religion constantly has to demonstrate the substance of its good. But if we’re here and free only because we serve soup to the poor, what happens when there’s too much salt in the soup? What happens when there aren’t enough beans? Where does our freedom go?

AB: In Canada, because of where things have shifted over the last 25 to 30 years, in the nature of our debate within the public sphere, in many cases faith communities have to stand a little bit taller, maybe stick their elbows out a little bit further, to say that we are part of this debate in the public sphere.

I think it’s very much recognized in the work that we’re doing in the Office of Religious Freedom that if we in Canada can’t recognize the role that religious faith and a public expression of religious faith play in our own public sphere, and how that enriches the public discourse – if we don’t appreciate that, then it’s going to be very difficult when we go into countries where religion dominates many, many discourses and dominates life.

It’s going to be very hard for us to engage because, as I’ve said on occasion, we risk developing a serious diplomatic blind spot if we can’t understand the role that religious faith plays in a given society.

So in Canada, because of the institutions we have, the history we have, the voices we have in society, and the freedom to raise those voices, no matter what our religious belief might be, in the public square, that’s a responsibility that we have.

In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, there’s not even the freedom to raise that voice. What, then, becomes the role of religious actors? Often, in raising their voices, they are martyred.

It’s incumbent upon us, I think, as Canadians, when we’re defending religious freedom overseas, that we take this Canadian experience and speak openly and frankly to governments in those countries, to religious communities in those countries, to say that you can have a broad debate in society on faith, on religion, and that will enrich your society.

C: It must be, again, a balancing act for you because you’re an ambassador for religious freedom. Your vision is global. It’s directed outward. I think you probably have to be delicate about interfering in domestic issues.

How would you explain to someone in one of the Middle Eastern Islamic countries what’s happening at Trinity Western University? How would you answer a clever scholar, or a clever bureaucrat or politician who says: “Why are you talking to us about religious freedom? You have a school that isn’t even allowed to open a law school because some people don’t like its mandate to have people behave in a particular way?”

AB: I would come back and say at least we’re having a debate around it. There has to be a recognition of different approaches by different faith communities towards questions of sexual morality, sexual ethics.

In the case of Trinity Western, we need to have that debate in this country and there needs to be a better understanding around just what the goal of a particular faith community is when they advocate a particular understanding of human life, of living in community, that may be out of step with the majority in society. We need to have that debate. So that’s what I would insist on when I speak to a country where, again, that debate is not permitted.

I’ll give you a very concrete example that is a version of what you’ve just asked. In October 2013, I was in Turkey for the better part of a week, and I had a chance to meet with all the different religious communities, had a wonderful conversation with the ecumenical patriarch, with the Jewish community in Istanbul and different Muslim communities.

Then I went to Ankara for government meetings. The very last meeting I had during my visit was with the Religious Affairs Ministry within Turkey that’s been around since the Ottoman times. It is one of the largest departments in the Turkish government. It oversees all of the imams in Turkey. They’re responsible for determining what those imams will preach on a given Friday.

When I met with them, I raised a number of issues of religious freedom in Turkey very frankly, including the restoration of both civil and ecclesiastical properties to different churches, restoration of civil properties to the Jewish community. These properties number in the thousands, including the Theological School of Halki (of the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

I was very frank about that, and I said, “Why are these not being restored? Why are you not moving faster in terms of the restoration of these properties?”

I raised questions around the transformation of part of old Byzantine churches in the country that have been museums for much of the last century, about part of them being turned into prayer spaces for Muslims. So I raised a number of issues out of concern for religious freedom and respect for different faith communities.

One of the people I was talking with said: “Well, thank you, Ambassador Bennett, for engaging with us on these questions and raising these issues with us. Perhaps we could come and help you with Quebec.”

C: That’s clever.

AB: I thought, “Okay, touché.” Obviously, if I’m going to raise these issues with that particular country, they may come back and say, What about certain situations in your own country? But again, it’s a question of the rule of law, the particular institutions at play in which that debate takes place.

So in the case of Quebec, the Parti Québécois government put that secular charter forward but was voted out of office, for a number of reasons. There was quite a bit of opposition to the secular charter that was voiced publicly, and people could do it publicly. It was in the newspapers and it was in academic debate, and it was all throughout the province and in the country.

In Turkey, on these particular questions, the debate is quite limited. It’s quite hard to engage government on these questions.

C: We have the means by which we can resolve these problems peacefully.

AB: Exactly. And we discuss them in the open.

C: Yet we seem to see a real narrowing of accepted parameters of debate. As I’m sure you’re aware, Trinity’s avenues for actually engaging that debate are consistently constricted. There are others that we could point to.

AB: Well, again, I would say that the emphasis has to be placed on the responsibility of all communities in a country to engage openly in a debate.

It’s all the broader issues around freedom to have a different perspective, freedom to have a different point of view that is informed by religious belief in the context of a whole set of dialogues, a whole set of questions in a country.

It’s also the freedom to be able to say that because we don’t ascribe to what your particular understanding might be doesn’t mean that what we believe is bad, or what we believe is prejudicial, or what we believe violates human dignity.

That, for me, is the point that I always come back to. Human dignity. If we can point to human dignity as being the fundamental foundation for everything we’re talking about, whether it’s freedom of religion, freedom of association, equality between men and women, everything. If we can point back to our fundamental motivation – being to uphold human dignity and the dignity of every individual human being – then we can’t go too far wrong.

Ambassador Bennett met his fellow Greek-Catholics at Melkite Cathedral in Amman, Jordan.

Ambassador Bennett met his fellow Greek-Catholics at Melkite Cathedral in Amman, Jordan.

When we step away from that, things start to go awry. I’d be a very bad Catholic if I didn’t say that I keep a copy of Dignitatis Humanae with me when I travel.

When we advance religious freedom, it’s not a theological proposition. It’s good to have some theological knowledge, but it’s not a theological discussion. It’s a discussion on human rights. But I extend that out to a discussion around human dignity and how we ensure that human dignity is present and is upheld.

Whether we’re having a debate in Canada or whether we’re having a debate in Turkey, we should always focus back on human dignity.

One question that I get asked quite often is, “In religious freedom, how can you go ahead and defend the rights of different religious organizations that may have a prejudicial view against people with a same-sex orientation?”

My response is always the same: It is perfectly justifiable from the perspective of religious freedom for the Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, whatever the faith might be, to have a certain understanding on human sexual morality, sexual ethics, that says that same-sex relations are not acceptable and same-sex marriage is not acceptable.

It’s a very different thing to then take that belief and warp it and twist it to persecute someone who has a same-sex orientation, as we find happening in Uganda. That violates human dignity – to beat that person up, to throw him in prison, to torture him.

C: I was in a conversation where someone asked, “Do we want to extend religious freedom to Satanists?” I thought, “Frankly, yes.” I would rather converse with a Satanist who believes in a fallen angel than with someone who denies angels altogether. At least he or she can be moved. At least there’s an angelic visitation that can occur, as opposed to a very rigid notion that nothing will come of nothing.

AB: I would defend the Satanist’s right to be a Satanist as well, just as I defend the right of an atheist not to believe in God.

Do I fundamentally disagree with those people? Yes. But, in any aspect of religious freedom, we need to ensure that people are able to exercise their free will.

So what ultimately is religious freedom, beyond the international definition of it? Is it the freedom to meditate upon, to ponder, to consider who I am? Who am I in relationship to others that I come into contact with? The imago Dei argument: Who am I in relationship to this world in which I live? Who am I in relationship to God, or to a particular philosophy that I might choose to pursue?

So I think with freedom of religion, and with other fundamental freedoms, it comes back to ensuring that people are able to exercise their free will, within established limits. They can’t preach hate. They can’t violate the dignity of other people. So that ability to exercise your free will, I think, buttresses that human dignity argument. . . .

C: I wonder how you keep from having your head sink in your hands when you look around at the daily diet of atrocities, more beheadings, more schoolgirls kidnapped, more this, more that. The sense of religious fear feeding on its worst violent impulses, or alternatively, people of faith suffering the effects of those violent impulses. How much can we actually do? How much can we move that needle towards human dignity?

AB: Well, it does weigh on me. It weighs on me a great deal. I’m able to see a lot that I wouldn’t normally see and that a lot of people might not normally see, not only at the political level but at the level of faith communities. But some of the images that I’ve seen, some of the witnesses that I’ve spoken to that have been subject to persecution themselves, in some cases very violent violations of their bodies – it’s quite hard at times.

But if I didn’t have a strong Christian faith, I couldn’t do this job. My faith is me. You see what’s going on in the world right now and the terror and the barbarism that you see in many places, not only in Iraq and Syria but in the conditions that Rohingya Muslims face in northern Burma, is atrocious.

You see how people are suffering. You see how people are suffering for their faith in a variety of different ways because they are of a particular faith and they just happen to be subject to very prejudicial views on the part of society.

So I think my faith allows me to approach that because it’s our fallenness. Having that Judeo-Christian understanding of this fallen world that we’re in has provided some excellent opportunities to meditate on that.

Ambassador Bennett Visit to Ukraine to Reaffirm Canada’s Support

Ambassador Bennett visited Ukraine to reaffirm Canada’s support.

But also, from a more pragmatic side, we can’t be naive in this office. Although we are now highlighting religious freedom as a core element of Canada’s foreign policy, we can’t be so naive to think that we can change things overnight.

In most countries, where many others have been active for decades but where we’ve just embarked as a government and as a foreign service, this is multi-generational change. But we have to be involved.

For the full interview, which includes a fascinating exchange on the complex relationship between church and state, and between various denominations, in Ukraine and Russia, go here.

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