CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
Prime Minister Harper welcomes new ambassador Andrew Bennett.
With a nod to slain Pakistani cabinet minister Shabbaz Bhatti, Prime Minister Stephen Harper inaugurated the long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom by appointing a Catholic scholar and public servant as its first-ever ambassador.
Andrew Bennett, a graduate of Saint Paul University's Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and a former professor and dean at the small private Augustine College in Ottawa, has taken the job, which Ottawa insiders say at least two people turned down.
In announcing the new office, Harper linked it to Bhatti, the Pakistani Catholic politician murdered for trying to modify his country's blasphemy laws.
"He worked tirelessly to defend the vulnerable," Harper said. "He did so knowing it put him at risk."
Harper met with Bhatti three weeks before his assassination.
Harper said the office exists to defend and promote fundamental Canadian values.
"There is a crucial and historic link between respect for religious freedom and the development of democracy itself," he said. "Governments that violate religious freedom are also prone to impose themselves in every other sphere of life."
The office is important to all Canadians, said Father Raymond de Souza, who was invited to the event.
"The world is becoming more religious, not less," said de Souza. "One of the ways people can get along is if religious liberty is respected."
A sub-deacon and cantor in Ottawa at the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Shrine, Bennett has government experience as a former political risk analyst for Export Development Canada and as a policy analyst in the Privy Council office.
In his new role, Bennett will monitor religious rights and freedoms and advise the government on incidents of religious intolerance and persecution abroad.
According to a government release, Bennett's focus will be on "countries or situations where there is evidence of egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion, violations that could include violence, hatred and systemic discrimination."
In answer to a question about whether commercial sanctions would be applied to China, India and other countries that violate religious freedom, Harper said Canada's foreign policy would continue to value commercial relations as a means of spreading democracy.
"We're always very clear about the promotion of our values," he said. "Things that open a society, that cause commerce and communication are a good thing."
The modest office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will operate on a budget of $500,000 a year, with a start-up cost of $5 million.