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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the appointment of Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett as ambassador to the office of religious freedom on Feb. 19 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the appointment of Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett as ambassador to the office of religious freedom on Feb. 19 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Religious-freedom ambassador will face challenges from his own department Add to ...

The Harper government’s new watchdog for international religious persecution is a scholar of Scottish nationalism who, until a few weeks ago, was a mid-level bureaucrat at the federal Department of Natural Resources.

If the experience of his U.S. counterpart is any indication, Andrew Bennett, appointed Canada’s first ambassador of religious freedom this week, should study up on the hard-knuckle office politics of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

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The Conservatives are installing the Office of Religious Freedom within the secular confines of Foreign Affairs, just as Bill Clinton located a similar office inside the U.S. State Department 14 years ago. The Canadian office, like the U.S. one, will criticize mistreatment of religious minorities in other countries.

A U.S.-based expert on religious persecution said on Wednesday that successive appointees to the post in the United States have found themselves sidelined by Washington’s State Department as diplomats rebuffed attempts to introduce a new player into the country’s foreign policy.

“These ambassadors at large for international religious freedom in the State Department, there’s been three of them. It’s fair to say all three, they have been marginalized. That didn’t mean they did nothing, but the State Department didn’t want them in the main line of stuff,” said Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Mr. Marshall holds dual Canadian-American citizenship and was approached about a year ago to see if he was interested in the post of ambassador with the Harper government’s religious freedom watchdog – but was not formally offered the job.

He applauded the creation of the office, saying many in the West underestimate the influence of religion in politics around the world. “The focus will be not so much on religious freedom itself but on violations of human rights in general on the grounds of religion.”

Dr. Bennett, 40, has been described as the dean of a private Christian liberal arts college in Ottawa, but associates said the endeavour is really a part-time role. The Ukrainian Catholic sub-deacon’s full-time job was as a manager at the Department of Natural Resources, and his expertise lies in history and political science.

His 2002 doctoral thesis in political science at the University of Edinburgh was titled Nations of Distinction: An Analysis of Nationalist Perspectives on Constitutional Change in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland. His McGill master’s thesis was 20th Century Bannockburn: Scottish Nationalism and the Challenge Posed to British Identity 1970-1980. The battle of Bannockburn was a victory for the Scots in their 14th- and 15th-century wars of independence.

Mr. Marshall said U.S. State Department officials have often resented the intrusion of their ambassador for international religious freedom. “Generally, the State Department does not like ambassadors at large for religious freedom. … One thing they are usually doing is criticizing and raising issues with other governments and [U.S.] ambassadors to those countries don’t like what they think of as crossed lines,” he said.

Father Raymond De Souza of the Catholic chaplaincy at Queen’s University was among those consulted on the creation of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.

He described Dr. Bennett as “intellectually very gifted” and said the new ambassador’s efforts to carve out a role will have the strong backing of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, all of whom consider the new watchdog a priority.

Dr. Bennett was Manager within Science Policy, Evidence and Analysis in the Science and Policy Integration sector at the Department of Natural Resources. He officially began his leave without pay from NRCan on Feb. 4, 2013.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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