Top cabinet ministers from more than 80 countries are in Washington D.C. today planning global action against religious persecution. Rev. Andrew Bennett, Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, is there and tells Convivium he’s hearing widespread disappointment over Canada’s absentee leadership on the critical issue.
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Peter Stockland: Andrew, you’re present at a potentially historic meeting on religious freedom. Can you let Convivium readers know what’s happening? What’s everybody doing there?
Andrew Bennett: This is the first-ever ministerial meeting held by anybody to advance religious freedom internationally. It's organized by the U.S. State Department. They’ve invited various countries to represent themselves at the foreign minister level for an intensive couple of days of conversation about how we do more than just talk about defending religious freedom. How do we actually act? What does that look like?
There is the main ministerial, which is the meeting of foreign ministers or their representatives. It started with a reception hosted by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and through today where they're having a series of plenary sessions, and then some closed-door sessions.
It really reflects the U.S. administration's commitment to religious freedom. They've always been pretty strongly committed. Unlike in Canada, in the States the advancement of international religious freedom is a bipartisan issue. They see the need to have present in foreign policy mechanisms to assist those facing persecution because of deeply held beliefs. So, whether it's a Republican administration or a Democratic administration, both have supported the International Religious Freedom Act.
They have embedded in the statute different mechanisms within the State Department, and there's a United States Commission for International Religious Freedom that has members appointed by the various branches of government. They've got robust and entrenched mechanisms. Do they always work well together? No. They struggle like any other government would. But it's good to see that even with that sort of entrenched set of resources, this administration has upped its game even further by placing greater focus on religious freedom.
Peter Stockland: Who would be in those ministerial meetings?
Andrew Bennett: They’re only for governments. But there’s also a series of meetings for civil society representatives. I’m attending them. These are faith communities, NGOs, advocacy organizations, academics, anyone that committed to advancing religious freedoms. It could be the smallest sort of two-person NGO shop right up to World Vision.
There's a broad range of advocacy bodies. You see the extent of human religious diversity on display in these big plenary meetings. I was in this plenary session yesterday that must have had about 1500 people. You had every conceivable Christian denomination represented.
I sat next to the outreach director for the Bruderhof community in upstate New York. A couple seats over was an archbishop from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyivan Patriarchate. There was a speaker from the Bektashi Sufi Community in Albania. The Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of America, Metropolitan Demetrios, was there. He spoke. Lots of different Jewish representatives from the most Reform to the most Hasidic. It was impressive to see people mingling and talking about a common commitment to religious freedom across religious traditions.
All of that will be fodder for whatever the broader outcome is. It's a tremendous opportunity to reengage civil society groups, to meet one another and find those connections. In just one day's worth of conversations, I’ve found many points of contact for the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute both internationally and in the US.
PS: Federal Conservative MP David Anderson issued a media release urging that Canada be adequately represented at the ministerial meeting. Are we?
AB: Yeah, well, the most junior parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs is representing the government. He's an MP from New Brunswick.
PS: I could look it up.
AB: There's also a press release on the Global Affairs website. There’s a staff member here who heads up the division on inclusion, diversity and religious freedom.
PS: Is it fair to say, then, that we didn't perhaps take it as seriously as some others might have?
AB: That's a fair assumption. I gather that they didn't have confirmation who Canada was sending until Tuesday, or whether Canada was even coming.
PS: How does that colour your interactions with people you’re meeting?
AB: It comes up regularly in conversation. There's a lot of people I've been regularly engaged with over the years, who still comment on what a shame it is that Canada has backed away from our leadership role. I hear that regularly.
The work we're doing now through the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, and the work I do down here in D.C. on religious freedom, means I'm still able to do the work I want to do, and even find new opportunities. But people remember the impact the Office of Religious Freedom had. They quite often say it's too bad Canada has diminished its focus. It is noticed. The Americans notice it. Various religious freedom advocates that we worked with when I was ambassador also notice it.
Canada, as I've said many times, has tremendous potential to lead in this area. It's a shame that, for ideological reasons, there's been a shift away from more active engagement on religious freedom. Persecutions are increasing in many countries. There's still real need to engage. That's what this ministerial is about. It's about how we more effectively address persistent persecution of religious communities, whether they're minority or majority communities.
PS: Given the diversity of people present, and somebody of the calibre of the U.S. Secretary of State leading the meeting, it seems Canada's going counter to much of the rest of the world. It sounds like there's a large-scale buy-in to the necessity of this, but Canada isn't buying it.
AB: To be fair, there is still a division doing work on religious freedom, and they have done good things over the past year or so. But it is certainly a diminishment. If you look at many different communities who are facing severe persecution, whoever they might be, they're coming to Canada because of the value we have historically given to religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
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We are naturally well positioned as a pluralist country to be lead advocates for religious freedom, and freedom of conscience, overseas. We need to take a leadership role again.
PS: Are people aware of our own religious freedom issues here in Canada?
AB: Americans who are actively engaged on religious freedom, and also some Brits with whom I've been chatting, have raised, unprompted, the Trinity Western case. It gained international attention, and not positive attention. I did a podcast two weeks ago with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and they were very up to speed on what's been happening in Canada. I heard, too, from some of my colleagues at an earlier session yesterday as part of the ministerial.
People were mentioning the Trinity Western case. At the Religious Freedom Institute, we had an event Tuesday evening, which was on international religious freedom perspectives from the Vatican. Among the speakers was Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who is the head of the section of the Secretary of State in the Vatican for relations with foreign states.
He's the top diplomat for the Holy See. He commented on many different questions around religious freedom and the type of violent persecution taking place in many parts of the world. One of the last comments he made was that we also need to address violations of freedom of conscience that are happening in many countries, where people are being told they cannot live their faith out publicly. We certainly are attentive to violent religious persecution in the world, but we must also be attentive to increasing violations of freedom of conscience in democratic countries.
It was interesting that the top diplomat from the Holy See has noticed this. It's not just Canada. There are growing limits on people's ability to live out their faith beyond simply freedom of worship. Freedom of religion and freedom of worship are not the same thing. Freedom of worship is a subset of religious freedom, but religious freedom is broader than that. It's fundamentally about the freedom to not only worship in peace and security but also have the freedom to act upon your beliefs, and to act upon those beliefs publicly.
PS: Arguably even the Chinese have freedom of worship though not true religious freedom, right?
AB: Exactly. Turkey's another good example. Jews and Christians and others can freely worship in Turkey. Just don't step outside the four walls of your place of worship and talk about it, never mind do anything.
PS: What will the outcome be? Will there be concrete proposals for action?
AB: That's the goal of the Americans. They want something concrete to emerge, not just a communique or press release. They're looking to bring together countries committed to advancing religious freedom as part of their foreign policy, and to put resources behind it. I've heard discussion about an international fund to advance religious freedom.
I gather that will be discussed by government representatives today, and we should know by the end of the week some results of those discussions. Whenever you bring together senior government officials and ministers, usually a lot of things are precooked. You've got a sense of what you want the outcome to be.
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