Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom

Canadian diplomat Andrew Bennett says that the purpose of the newly founded Office of Religious Freedom will help support Canadian diplomats as they find themselves in increasing complex and religiously charged situations abroad.

canada-office-religious-freedomTORONTO, Canada — 2013 saw the founding of the Office of Religious Freedom by Prime Minister Steven Harper’s conservative government. A chief of this office has since been appointed, Dr. Andrew Bennett, a long time public servant with a PhD in political science from the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Bennett, appointed in February, recently commented on the purpose of this new office and the goals of this somewhat misunderstood project. Bennett outlines the purpose of the office as a way to support Canadian diplomats as they find themselves in increasing complex and religiously charged situations abroad. Bennett hopes to “work closely with diplomats to help them develop a ‘nuanced’ understanding of the issues of religious liberty in the countries where they’re serving,” a massive and complicated undertaking.

As a Catholic, Bennett wants to put to rest misconceptions of the Office of Religious Freedom

There are many justified concerns regarding the Christian-centric nature of the office. Bennett says, “This is not a theological issue, a theological question.” The purpose of the office is not to work in a missionary function, proliferating a theological message, but rather to act as a neutral, political body. Given the political track record of Harper’s government, it is interesting to see a conservative federal government so heavily fund and promote an initiative such as this.

The Harper government, historically initiating military spending increases and cuts to social programs, is now singing a different tune. Prime Minister Harper seems to be placing more emphasis on social and cultural issues such as religious diversity, though critics argue that this office has a deeply Christian agenda. Harper is putting his money where his mouth is, allotting a $4.25 million dollar annual budget for the office. With the Office of Religious Freedom still in its infancy, there are already many concerns and questions.

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Regarding funding, with a substantial budget in place, and an ever-growing number of non-religious Canadians, some have questioned the use of tax-payer dollars to support a program that focuses solely on religious issues. There are also those who feel this energy and money would be better spent focusing on Canadian domestic challenges, dealing with at-home issues ahead of issues abroad. Apart from the at home logistics of the program’s funding and set-up, there are also concerns that the program will not be welcome or accepted by those nations deemed in need of religious referees.

Bennett notes that there are nations in which the Office of Religious Freedom will be hard pressed to function. He notes that it may be challenging to have meaningful dialogue with countries like Iran, Syria, and China; however, countries like Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan are open to discussion and involvement from the office. The founding of the Office of Religious Freedom is ground breaking in Canadian politics, and though there are many questions and challenges with the program thus far, it will be interesting to see what role this office takes in the 2014 Canadian political landscape and how it will shape Canada’s relationships abroad.

Emma Sturgeon holds a Master’s in Religion and Modernity from Queen’s University, Kingston. She is a researcher, writer, and political analyst living in Toronto, Canada. Read other articles by Emma.