The Harper government has picked a relatively little-known Christian college professor to serve as Ottawa's official watchdog for international religious persecution, a new post that makes defence of the right to worship a central objective of Canada's foreign policy.
Andrew Bennett, 40, a former federal bureaucrat and Ukrainian Catholic sub-deacon, has been named the first ambassador to head the Office of Religious Freedom, an agency the Conservative Party promised in the last federal election campaign. The measure, inspired in part by the 2011 assassination of an outspoken Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan, was popular with evangelical Christian supporters of the Conservatives and some immigrant groups courted by the party.
The Office of Religious Freedom – similar to a U.S. position president Bill Clinton set up in the 1990s – will be inside the secular confines of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and have a budget of $5-million, with four staff to support the ambassador. Dr. Bennett's term is for three years.
"Around the world, violations of religious freedom are widespread, and they are increasing," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a crowd at an Ahmadiyya Muslim community facility in the Greater Toronto Area on Tuesday.
He singled out persecution of minorities in Iran, Pakistan and even China, a major trading partner of Canada's. "In China, Christians who worship outside government-approved boundaries are driven underground, and their leaders are arrested and detained, while Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners are subject to repression and intimidation," Mr. Harper said. "In the face of these injustices and atrocities, Canada will not be silent."
Mr. Harper acknowledged skepticism about this office, saying he recognizes "there are a few who may believe this is of interest to only a limited number of Canadians and the communities most affected" by persecution.
But he added that his government considers religious freedom a necessary precondition for a strong democracy.
"Today, as many centuries ago, democracy will not find, democracy cannot find, fertile ground in any society where notions of the freedom of personal conscience and faith are not permitted."
Dr. Bennett, the dean of Augustine College in Ottawa, a Christian liberal arts institution, has not made a name for himself in human-rights circles. Amnesty International Canada's Alex Neve, for instance, did not appear to have heard of the academic before Tuesday.
The Tories wrestled with the decision of who should head the office: they wanted someone ideologically compatible with their aims but not a gadfly who would risk unduly injuring relations with trading partners such as China or Mid-East regimes such as Saudi Arabia.
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, was considered for the post. One of the books he has edited is Radical Islam's Rules: the Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law. Former MP David Kilgour's name was mentioned as a possible candidate, but his high-profile advocacy work to draw attention to Chinese persecution of the Falun Gong movement killed the chances he would get the nod.
Dr. Bennett is also a religious leader. He serves as sub-deacon and cantor with the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the Baptist Ukrainian-Catholic Shrine in Ottawa.
The government declined to make its new ambassador available for interviews on Tuesday, but in a short scrum with reporters at the announcement, he said he considers the job to be about "building awareness about the issue of religious freedom abroad."
The new post sends a message about Conservative government priorities. The Office of Religious Freedom's $5-million budget is nearly twice as much as Ottawa allocates yearly to parliamentary budget watchdog Kevin Page's office. Mr. Page, who has become a thorn in the side of the Harper government for questioning its fiscal assumptions, has a budget of just $2.8-million per year.
The new office is in part a workaround to avoid resistance the Tories say they previously encountered from the Foreign Affairs bureaucracy. Conservatives privately complain that federal civil servants in some instances resisted their efforts to raise concern about religious persecution.
Critics have charged the office seems to be set up to defend the rights of Christian minorities around the world. Amnesty's Mr. Neve said it's crucial the office be seen as inclusive of all religions.
Mr. Harper said the office will defend not just Christianity but all faiths, adding the government announced the ambassador at an Ahmadiyya Muslim facility to reinforce this message. Ahmadiyya Muslims are a persecuted minority in Pakistan.