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religious freedom

Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett pose for a portrait at Saint John The Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Shrine June 06, 2013 in Ottawa. (DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail)The Globe and Mail

Andrew Bennett on how freedom of religion is a "fundamental freedom"

Freedom of religion links very closely with other fundamental freedoms such as freedom of association, freedom of expression … and also just basic equality between men and women. I think if you have freedom of religion as a base, you find that those other freedoms are able to flourish.

In our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the first freedom that's enumerated is freedom of religion or conscience. So we have that as our base.

I think that's another reason for why the office is here: to demonstrate that here's Canada's experience of pluralism. Here's Canada's belief in what freedom of religion is. Not only is it a Canadian principle, it's a universal principle. And we see it indicated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On how his office will monitor treatment of atheists

Freedom of religion includes the freedom not to have a particular religious faith. I think that's just logically consistent. With regards to atheists and people who choose not to have a particular religious faith … obviously we need to listen to their concerns.

I would say that we see in the world today – there's some concerns around atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, for example. We need to monitor that situation, which we are. … So just because we haven't made a statement doesn't mean we're not following it.

On whether he will defend the rights of atheists

It's a concern but I think we also need to realize 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.

So the concerns of atheists, I understand it. And we will monitor it. And we will speak out if we need to. But I think we can't lose sight of the fact that disproportionately the people being persecuted for freedom of religion are believers.

People of faith are the ones that are worshipping. They are the ones that are engaging in missionary activity. They are ones that are being forced into conversion in certain countries.

On whether he will speak out on domestic controversies concerning religious minorities, such as the decision to ban turban-wearing Sikh kids from Quebec soccer fields

No. Not at all. The mandate for my office is very explicit. It's about foreign policy. It's about defending freedom of religion in [other] countries. In Canada we're very blessed to have institutions like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and parliamentarians and legislators who actually act to defend these freedoms. We need to allow these institutions to function.

On how his office will disburse $4.25-million each year in overseas projects to support religious freedom

A lot of the work will be working with partners in the countries of engagement to develop projects … to disburse these funds to support a whole range of activities. For example: fostering inter-religious dialogue in these countries. But not just dialogue. For example, in countries that are in transition, like Burma, like Egypt, to engage with those governments and maybe use Canadian expertise in the legislative drafting, the drafting of constitutions, to help to insert human rights language – language around freedom of religion – into those documents. Also, to work with countries like those I just named to promote dialogue that emphasizes the importance of social cohesion and what it means to build a nation. In the office we don't talk about religious minorities because that gets you into an us-versus-them sort of mindset; so we focus on communities. So for example if we are looking at Egypt, what does it mean to be an Egyptian? So Copts, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and all these different communities in Egypt. They are all Egyptians – and what does it mean to build Egypt.

On whether Westerners are naive in thinking they can solve or ameliorate what are sometimes ancient conflicts

I think we have to have our eyes open. We have to understand what the situation is on the ground. But when we speak about Canadian values or Canadian principles like freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights, these aren't just Canadian principles. They are universal principles.

On the potential to work with other countries in promoting religious freedom

Only Canada and the U.S have a specific office. In the U.S. it's called the Office of International Religious Freedom. However, a lot of other countries are doing work in this area. For example in the U.K., there's a minister, Baroness Warsi, and she sits in the House of Lords but she is in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and she has both a domestic remit to look at faith and communities in the U.K. and also a foreign-policy remit to look at religious-freedom issues. So she's another counterpart for us. And then there are a number of other countries that are doing work in the area of religious freedom. The Dutch, for example. I believe they are operating in about nine different countries with different projects to encourage religious freedom. So there are a number of countries that are quite interested. Last year we had an event on the margins of the [UN] General Assembly in New York where we partnered with the Dutch and the Senegalese on religious freedom. The Senegalese are also very focused on this. They are a predominantly Muslim country but they are very conscious of the presence of a sizeable Christian community and the role that that plays.

On future trips to countries of concern

In the next six months I plan to undertake a number of foreign trips to countries where we have particular concerns of the violation of freedom of religion. In some cases we see some violent expressions of that. In other cases we see people of faith being restricted by regulations, legislation, administrative controls that really just inhibit their free practice of their faith. In the next while, we're looking at certainly Egypt. We have significant concerns about the continued situation in Egypt, especially with Coptic Christians. But not only the Copts – Shia Muslims also are experiencing some degree of persecution there. Pakistan is another concern. There you have a country that is really in a period of transition. We see that there's been this successful democratic transition through the election. We hope that continues and we really commend the Pakistanis for their efforts in that regard. But there's a lot of issues there, both with the blasphemy laws that we see there that cause problems and can be persecutorial of a number of groups – not only Christians and Hindus and Sikhs, but even Sunni Muslims that often get targeted when these laws are misapplied. So we have concerns in Pakistan. I would hope to be invited to China at some point. And that's certainly another country where we have concerns.