Why Religious Freedom is so Important: An Interview with Ambassador Andrew Bennett

As the next EFC webinar on June 11 rolls around (this time on religious freedom) we revisit some relevant blogs. What does Ambassador Andrew Bennett say about religious freedom?

Canada is talking about religious freedom. Last year, Faith Today explored that topic with Ambassador Andrew Bennett of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), an office that focusses on religious freedom in other countries (not Canada). His insights can help our discussion: “Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” said Bennett. “It links in with freedom of expression, gender equality. It’s incumbent upon us, where we have that in Canada, to speak out.”

Read excerpts of the interview in this Faith Today blog post, and the full interview in the magazine by clicking here

Ambassador Andrew Bennett hosting a religious freedom roundtable.
Ambassador Andrew Bennett hosting a religious freedom roundtable.

FT: When you are visiting countries and the governments know you are there as a kind of watchdog for religious freedom, how do they receive you? Is it awkward?

AB: It’s awkward for them, not for me. At times they don’t necessarily receive Canada coming to talk to them about their own challenges and government restrictions on their own communities. That would be the same as when I meet with foreign diplomats in Canada. There might be a sense of Canada judging and meddling.

There is a difference between that and speaking what is true.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. It links in with freedom of expression, gender equality. It’s incumbent upon us, where we have that in Canada, to speak out.

There is religious persecution that is directly attributable to actions of government. There are a number of egregious countries like Saudi Arabia. They target any religious community not connected with well-established faith.

Another type of persecution is the release of social hostility where one group targets another because of what they believe, like the persecution of Christians in many countries in the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, the Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. We have to be able to engage in both aspects. When speaking with a government, it can often be a difficult conversation. But it is inherent truth, the inherent dignity of every human being. That is what we are speaking of.

FT: Ten out of the 15 countries with the worst religious freedom abuses are Muslim nations, according to a report released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. One might assume, therefore, that Islam is more prone to religious persecution. Is this true?

AB: I think there are significant challenges with freedom of religion in countries that are Muslim majority populated, but it’s not fair to target that. Muslims themselves are being brutally targeted in some countries. In China we have Muslims that face persecution in the northwestern part of the country. We look at Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan where minority populations face persecution from the majority. Countries that are majority Buddhist like Burma or Sri Lanka, where you have the majority Buddhist population that targets Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the North. There are all sorts of factors that can lead to religious persecution in a country. There are religious factors, socialeconomic, ethnic. So often, violations are linked to other human rights violations.

FT: When you look at all these different cases of religious persecution, are there similarities between them?

AB: There can be many different things happening such as in India where we have a lot of Christians that are of lower caste, and so often when Christians are attacked in certain states of India there is a caste element as well.

I think when we look at why people are being persecuted in the world because of their faith, we see government restrictions, governments trying to control religious practice in their country to favour one group over another.

It’s a question of having a very narrow understanding of what religious freedom is. Former Soviet Union countries define it very narrowly. It is a restricted freedom to worship.

That is part of it, but it is also the right to openly manifest your faith in public. The right to change your faith is the canary in the coal mine. Also the right to not be coerced to change your faith, to engage in missionary activity, such as for Christians. Also, the freedom to not have faith. That is all within the bounds of religious freedom.

FT: In our own country we have the situation of Quebec and the proposed Charter of Values, which would restrict the freedom of employees of the State wearing symbols of their religion. That would strike some as not being in line with religious freedom.

AB: I think it’s important for your readers to know our office focuses exclusively on religious freedom overseas.

We’re talking about places where they are being tortured, imprisoned, killed. It’s not my office’s role to comment on the situation in Quebec. There are a number of people in the Government of Canada who have spoken out regarding the Charter of Values. It’s proper that other parts of the government should address that conversation.

We are able to advance religious freedom overseas as Canadians because we have religious freedom in Canada.

The courts, legislatures, Parliament and individual citizens uphold religious freedom in our country. It’s the very first freedom enumerated in section two of the Charter.

It’s very clearly established in the Canadian context. We’re blessed to have that freedom, and given that we have it, it behooves us to understand what it means, to champion it and to champion it abroad.

FT: How does an ordinary Canadian citizen champion religious freedom abroad?

AB: Make sure you are well informed. How is religious freedom understood universally? Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explains it well. There are a number of very good research institutes such as the Hudson Institute in the U.S.

There are books by Paul Marshall, who is also a Canadian.

The Pew Forum can help. It is important to have an understanding of what the situations are, to inform yourself of who the groups are, to familiarize yourself with those Christian churches facing persecution, particularly the ancient Apostolic churches like the Chaldeans. These are maybe churches your readers are not as familiar with. These are very ancient churches that are increasingly being challenged in the birthplace of Christianity. That gives people then the opportunity to speak out in defence of religious freedom.

FT: You used the term “canary in a coal mine” earlier. That is how religious freedom has been defined as well, as the freedom that is sometimes the first to go and serves as an alert to observers.

AB: Absolutely. We can speak of it as a foundational freedom along with others that exist. It links in with so many other rights, of expression, of equality between men and women. Religious freedom allows us as people of faith to practise our faith, whether it’s liturgical practice, or expressing a theological point of view. Also, most religions have an ethical and moral framework that helps us understand human rights.

At the core of religious freedom and at the core of all freedoms is the human being. Each human being possesses an inherent dignity and that is at the core of our discussion about all rights. That understanding does not exist in countries that don’t have freedom of religion. It’s almost guaranteed they don’t have those other freedoms.

FT: You mentioned earlier that the ORF really exists to speak externally. Is there a way in which your office benefits Canadians as well?

AB: In the past year I’ve had the opportunity to engage every major faith tradition in the country in some way. In doing that, it gives me an opportunity to raise awareness among Canadians about why it’s important for Canada to advance religious freedom, something that we’re blessed to enjoy in Canada.

Here in Canada we have a highly secularized society. It is important that there is a prevalent discourse around faith and religion in Canadian society. That helps us engage the world.

The ORF exists because religious freedom is a fundamental human right that is being violated. We need to have this office in Canada because that’s what Canada does – we speak out for human rights. It all points to a fundamental human truth about the dignity of each human being.

FT: Thank you, Ambassador Bennett. 

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