Canada's first religious freedom ambassador says his job advancing and promoting religious liberty around the globe has an equally important role: to support Canadian diplomats as they work abroad.
Andrew Bennett's vote of confidence in the Canadian foreign service comes despite years of tension between diplomats and the very Conservative government that created his job early last year.
Canada's foreign service is "one of the best in the world" and diplomats have been working tirelessly for decades in nations where religion plays a critical role in the lives of their citizens and the politics of their governments, Bennett said in a recent interview.
"The Canadian foreign service, and Canadians abroad, have been focusing on religious freedom for a long time before I arrived, so really our office is a way to support them in what they're finding in the countries they're engaged in," said Bennett, himself a longtime public servant.
Diplomats staged the longest strike in public service history earlier this year in job action that saw them picketing in the streets of Tokyo, Washington, London, Paris, Dublin and beyond. The bitter six-month dispute with the federal government, which ended in September, is estimated to have delivered a $1-billion hit to the economy, particularly in the tourism and education sectors.
Bennett, a 41-year-old Catholic who has considered becoming a priest, says Canadian diplomats far and wide have sent words of encouragement since he was appointed to the job in February.
"I've received nothing but full support of colleagues here in the department and in the missions overseas. Our office is really a tool for them," the lanky Bennett said from his office in Ottawa's Lester B. Pearson building, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
One of his aspirations during his three-year stint is to work closely with diplomats to help them develop a "nuanced" understanding of the issues of religious liberty in the countries where they're serving, he added.
But his No. 1 goal as Canada's first ambassador of religious freedom?
To ensure that "Canada is seen as a world leader in defending religious freedom."
He added plainly: "It's what Canada does. It fits squarely within our broader human rights framework within our foreign policy."
Bennett confesses he's had to battle some misconceptions about the new office as he's worked to get it up and running. Some suspect the office has a purely domestic agenda, or that it's promoting religion.
"This is not a theological issue, a theological question," he says.
"It's about human rights. And it's about human dignity and understanding that every human being has an inherent right to choose to believe what they wish to believe .... When we look at countries where freedom of religion is violated, we're talking about people being tortured and killed and persecuted in a variety of different ways, and so it's right that Canada speaks out about this."
While some countries are hearing Canada's message, Bennett says, others pose much more of a challenge – China, in particular, "an equal-opportunity persecutor because they target everyone."
This poses difficulties for a government that is trying to develop stronger trade ties with the Chinese. Indeed, the Tories recently announced a plan to make trade the primary focus of Canada's diplomatic missions.
"We want to try to engage with them," Bennett says of China and other "gross violators" like Iran and Syria. "It's going to be hard to have a sustained dialogue; it's going to be hard to develop projects in those countries."
But there are bright spots in places like Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia and even Pakistan, Bennett adds, saying the Pakistanis are showing a real "openness" to tackle religious freedom issues.
"We really believe we can engage with these countries in a way that we can expand an awareness of religious freedom," he said.
"We need to be able to say that countries have an obligation to uphold this right. It's not simply a right to worship in peace and security, it's also a right to openly profess your faith, to engage in missionary activity and, the acid test: the right to change your faith and the flip side, the right not to be coerced into changing your faith."
Bennett's office is currently holding quarterly religious freedom forums. It's also putting out a call for proposals for funding from the office's religious freedom fund; there have already been more than 100 requests for projects around the world.
With a $4.25-million annual budget to spend – "right now, a sufficient amount," Bennett says – the office is assessing how "we can make that money the most effective."
"What we have now is adequate, but there is a lot of interest out there," he said with a smile.