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Bennett to Senate: Protect Religious FreedomBennett to Senate: Protect Religious Freedom

Bennett to Senate: Protect Religious Freedom

He joined Cardus in July of this year after the Trudeau government decided not to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), which he headed up. And he’s doing so in a Canadian context now too.

Daniel Proussalidis
4 minute read

Well settled into his new role as a senior fellow at Cardus, Dr. Andrew Bennett continuing the mission he took on in 2013 as Canada’s first (and only) ambassador for religious freedom.

He joined Cardus in July of this year after the Trudeau government decided not to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), which he headed up.

While Bennett doesn’t travel as much internationally, he still speaks out in defence of religious freedom.

And he’s doing so in a Canadian context now too.

Bennett told the Senate Human Rights Committee in early December there is a need to explain domestically just how fundamental a right religious freedom is.

“Freedom of religion, as indicated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in many other documents, is often placed as a first freedom, or we might say a foundational freedom,” he said, explaining that without it, concepts like freedom of speech and assembly become meaningless.

During his full hour of testimony, Bennett raised the example of Raif Badawi, a human rights blogger arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 after running afoul of religious authorities there. He remains imprisoned under a 10-year sentence that is complemented by 1,000 lashes. His flogging remains indefinitely suspended under pressure from Canada and other countries.

“He was found guilty of effectively defaming Islam and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and lashings,” Bennett told Senators. “In order to have his freedom of speech he had to first formulate what he wanted to speak about, so in that sense his freedom of religion was being violated – his freedom to speak as a more secular Muslim.”

It’s cases like Badawi’s that convince Bennett that the decision not to give priority to freedom of religion in Canadian foreign policy is “untenable.”

In May 2016, the Liberal government announced that the new Office of Human Rights, Freedoms, and Inclusion would take over the responsibilities of the ORF within Global Affairs Canada.

“The new office expands on the work undertaken by Andrew Bennett as head of the former Office of Religious Freedom by bringing those efforts together under a comprehensive vision that includes all human rights,” the government explained at the time.

But, Bennett fears that decision actually undermines “an internationally recognized human right that is entrenched in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as our own Charter, and that has its roots in Western civilization back to the Edict of Milan in 313 AD.”

He points out the Canadians need to understand the depth of what religious freedom means.

“Too often as Canadians, and often along with many Americans and Europeans, we have bought into a post-Enlightenment myth that religion is a purely private matter, and that religious faith and ideas should find little or no expression in the public square, let alone in foreign policy or public policy,” Bennett told the committee. “This is a false understanding of the separation of Church and State, a constitutional doctrine not present in this country, but often people will cite it.”

It's a message he would have liked to have given the minister who took over responsibility for Global Affairs Canada in November 2015.

“Unfortunately, I was never afforded the opportunity to brief the minister on the work of the Office of Religious Freedom,” said Bennett.

But even as the former ambassador argued in favour of a high profile for religious freedom in foreign affairs, some in his audience challenged him.

“I wonder if casting human rights abuses narrowly through the lens of religion misses a bigger human rights context,” mused non-affiliated Senator Ratna Omidvar.

Omidvar pointed to Iran as an example where religious leaders have political power, creating a situation that went beyond matters of religious freedom.

Bennett agreed, but suggested the solution was a better understanding of religious issues.

“In the case of the Central African Republic, there was, over the last number of years, pretty horrific violence between so-called Christian militias and so-called Muslim militias – violence that was so extreme that the local leading imam in Bangui took refuge in the home in the bishop in Bangui,” said Bennett.

He says there was pressure from some quarters to see the conflict there in religious terms.

“But when you looked at what was actually happening on the ground, it was much more about the land rights, about entrenched tribal rivalries, about a whole range of things, but religion was being instrumentalized to present it as a religious conflict,” said Bennett. “If we had gone in there as the Office of Religious Freedom, as some recommended, and talked about violations, of this being a religious persecution, it would have been a bad idea, because it would have drawn attention to it as a religious situation, which it was not fundamentally.”

He told the committee that Canadian foreign affairs officials need to be sensitive, aware, and informed about religious freedom around the world to prevent them from having a “blind spot” in their work.

His testimony appears to have made an impression on the committee.

“Dr. Bennett, I will echo what Senator Andreychuk just whispered to me, saying this is one of the better sessions we've had in the Human Rights Committee, with which I will whole?heartedly agree, because you have given us incredible insights again into freedoms around the world and human rights around the world,” said committee chair Senator Jim Munson. “I want to wish you well in your new work with Cardus.  We thank you very much for what you have done for our country.”

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