After he was released from more than a week of detention by Sri Lankan police last month, Muslim leader Azath Salley personally telephoned Ottawa’s High Commission in Colombo to thank Canada for condemning his arrest.
It was an unusually quick success for Andrew Bennett, the Harper government’s newly minted Ambassador of Religious Freedom, whose denunciation of the imprisonment a day after the arrest made Canada one of the first countries to speak out publicly in defence of Mr. Salley’s rights.
Much of what lies ahead for Mr. Bennett – whose office represents a new effort by the Conservatives to project Canadian values abroad – will be more of an uphill battle.
Already, China, a key trading partner, has registered concern about the office. Mr. Bennett said he seeks a constructive dialogue with Beijing, but he doesn’t think Zhang Junsai, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, was pleased to learn he plans to meet with critics such as Tibetan Buddhists.
Taped to Mr. Bennett’s office computer monitor at the Department of Foreign Affairs are the pictures of two Syrian Christian archbishops, abducted from Aleppo in April – another reminder of what’s at stake in his role as a defender of religious minorities around the globe.
A Ukrainian Catholic, the 40-year-old said he’s still considering whether to become a priest someday. He spent six months at a seminary in Ottawa several years ago, before deciding he would return to the public service.
But it remains to be seen how much independence the religious freedom watchdog will have in a Conservative government known for controlling the message. Would Mr. Bennett, for instance, pull his punches in condemning a country where criticism might harm trade relations with Canada?
“We have to be conscious of the broad foreign policy goals of the country,” Mr. Bennett said. “I am not going to sugarcoat language. I will use appropriate language but I am not going to sugarcoat the language that I use.”
Diplomats are supposed to be professional optimists, though, even in the face of intransigence. For instance, when Mr. Bennett visited Kazakhstan in March, voicing his support for the Ahmadiyya Muslims, a persecuted religious minority, he found government officials openly balked at relaxing restrictions on this group.
“I said, ‘Why are Ahmadiyyas not recognized under your new religious law?’ And he said, ‘Well if we recognized them it would offend Muslims. Because [Ahmadiyyas] are not Muslims,’ ” Mr. Bennett recalled of his conversation with Usen Suleimen, ambassador-at-large with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “He was very upfront about it. And I said, ‘Well that’s not religious freedom.’ ”
Mr. Bennett was appointed in February to head Ottawa’s Office of Religious Freedom, a new body that will monitor oppression of religious minorities abroad and make defending the right to worship a new objective in Canadian foreign policy. He’s a veteran of the federal public service with more than a decade of experience working on everything from national unity to political risks facing exporters to labour pool gaps in natural-resource sectors.
Stephen Harper promised the office during the 2011 election campaign at a Coptic Christian centre in Mississauga, and then announced Mr. Bennett’s appointment at an Ahmadiyya mosque north of Toronto. The initiative drew accusations of vote pandering and blurring lines between church and state.
Mr. Bennett, however, argues the office is timely, pointing to studies by organizations such as the Pew Research Centre showing assaults on religious freedom around the world have increased in recent years.
But he acknowledged the new office is not sitting well with all of Canada’s trading partners. He said the Chinese were upset when Mr. Harper singled out religious persecution in China during his February announcement of the new ambassadorial appointment. During a discussion with Mr. Junsai, Mr. Bennett said, the Chinese ambassador called on Canada to be consistent in what it says about the Asian country in public and behind closed doors.
“One of his concerns was that what we say publicly is also what we say privately,” the Canadian official said.
Mr. Bennett said he told Beijing’s envoy that he believes Canada and China can have a “mature discussion” – but he added he would be firm on the need to speak out about China when necessary.
“When it comes to human rights and particularly freedom of religion, we will continue to express our concerns in that area, and I said to him at the time that I will be meeting with groups such as Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, Christians,” Mr. Bennett said. “I don’t think he was particularly pleased with that.”
The religious-freedom ambassador said he’s also monitoring the treatment of atheists abroad. “Freedom of religion includes the freedom not to have a particular religious faith,” he said. “I think that’s just logically consistent.”
But he signalled his greatest priority would be believers. “The vast majority of people being persecuted are people of faith. They are the ones that are being killed. They are the ones that are facing legislative and regulatory restrictions.”
The ambassador’s office is installed within the secular confines of Foreign Affairs and has the enthusiastic support of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Before the office was set up, senior Conservatives in government had privately complained that Foreign Affairs employees resisted their efforts to focus more efforts on championing religious rights abroad.
Mr. Bennett said he’s received nothing but support from Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade staffers. He said he thinks it helps that he spent more than a decade in the bureaucracy himself and is no outsider to Ottawa. “They [DFAIT] see a guy who’s been in the public services for 12 years; [who] understands how things work.”