Harper announces office of religious freedom

MAPLE, Ont. — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has delivered on a controversial campaign promise nearly two years after vowing to combat religious persecution.

MAPLE, Ont. — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has delivered on a controversial campaign promise nearly two years after vowing to combat religious persecution.

At a mosque north of Toronto, Harper formally announced Tuesday the creation of an office of religious freedom which will operate as part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Harper also named Andrew Bennett, a public servant and academic who has worked for the Privy Council Office — as the first ambassador to the new body.

In his remarks at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque, Harper said religious persecution is an urgent and ongoing global problem that plagues believers of all faiths.

He chronicled abuses against Jews, Coptic Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

“Canada has spoken out consistently and emphatically,” Harper said. “Without fear or favour, Canada defends human rights around the world. And we have not only spoken out; we have also taken action.”

Harper was flanked at the event by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. John Baird, the country’s foreign affairs minister, was not present due to a tour of Latin America.

Baird was active in the creation of the office, meeting with religious figures over the past 18 months.

Government sources said the Conservatives had a hard time finding someone to lead the office. Its modest $5-million price tag includes $500,000 for operations.

Harper said Bennett’s role will involve monitoring religious freedom around the world and promoting it as part of Canadian foreign policy.

Bennett’s colleagues at the small, 16-student Augustine College in downtown Ottawa described an energetic, intelligent and empathetic 40-year-old dean who they said would be able to rise to the political and philosophical challenges that would come with his new position.

College President John Patrick said Bennett has a knack for making you feel like the most important person in the room when you talk to him.

“It would be a tough job for anyone but if anyone can do it, it’s probably him. He has both the intellectual and diplomatic skills that are needed. He’s an extraordinary man,” Patrick said in an interview.

“He considered the monastic life at one point. He might still after this is over, I don’t know.”

College administrator Harold Visser described Bennett as “dynamic and knowledgeable” and passionate about the relationship between faith and culture.

Visser said Bennett would be able to reach out to all religions. He said that it would have made no sense to pick someone for the new ambassador’s post who did not come from a religious faith.

“What Andrew brings is a familiarity with a diversity of faith and a sensitivity to the validity of those various faith traditions,” said Visser.

“There’s nothing in me that says, Andrew is going to be, as some would suggest, some kind of Christian fundamentalist who’s out there to bang the Christian drum,” Visser added.

Tuesday’s announcement comes after many fits and starts that saw government officials touting the imminent creation of the office over the course of the last year.

Human rights groups and opposition critics have spoken out against the office, calling it a misguided attempt to inject religion into foreign policy.

New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar decried the scope of the new office, calling it limited.

“The Office of Religious Freedoms, as introduced today, represents both a broken Conservative promise and a missed opportunity,” he said in a statement.

“Conservatives had repeatedly promised a democratic development agency, but they broke that promise and now they’re moving forward on a much more limited and narrow approach.”

The Conservatives have maintained that the seed of the idea came after Harper met with Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shabhaz Bhatti, shortly before he was shot to death by extremists in Islamabad in 2011. The extremists accused Bhatti, a Christian, of violating Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.