In April 2011, Stephen Harper announced that Canada would set up an Office of Religious Freedom. Today, he introduced the man appointed to head up that office: Andrew Bennett, currently Dean at the Christian Augustine College. Although he is a Catholic, Bennett said that even those who choose not to have a faith would be protected. How a bureaucrat in Canada can protect an atheist in Somalia or Iran was not explained but at least he's saying the right things. When the idea was announced, there were two main concerns:
- That it was a cynical ploy to win votes from Muslims - this was not contradicted by the fact that Harper chose a mosque to make the announcement.
- That it would be biased to favour Christians. Although the announcement in the mosque was meant to counter that accusation, the appointment of a strong Catholic currently employed at a Christian institution does not alleviate that fear.
Previous articles on this blog discussed these problems and others (see related articles at left) The idea of the office is for Canada to speak out when minorities in other countries are persecuted for their religion - or (hopefully) for their lack of religion. One inspiration for the Office was said to be the case of Pakistani cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti who was Christian and spoke up trying to protect Christians against Muslim terrorists. He was ultimately assassinated for his trouble.
When asked, Harper denied the office would be modelled after its U.S. counterpart, which has been accused of being biased towards Christians. The CBC reports:
Harper said that Canada is "a very different country" and said the fact the announcement was made in a mosque makes it clear that the goal of the office is "to promote religious tolerance around the world."
The jury is still out on this - if you hate Harper (many Liberal and NDP supporters do), you probably think this will not work - but since the office is supposed to be autonomous, maybe it will be OK. Better a Catholic than a fundamentalist heading it up. It will report into the Foreign Affairs Department headed by Minister John Baird (probably Christian).
However, there are still issues that have not been addressed:
- There is no talk of promoting Freedom from Religion or separation of Church and State.
- Many countries are Muslim and Muslims make it clear that women's rights are subordinate to religious beliefs. How is that reconciled with tolerance to Muslims?
- Why does it even exist? Why is Government getting involved in religion at all? Why not an office to promote human rights? What about women's rights and freedom of speech including the right to criticize any religion?
But Bennett has political and public service savvy so may be able to make the idea work. He has a budget of $5m with 10% of that for operations so he won't have a large staff or a large salary. I can't wait to see how he contributes - or not.
April 4, 2013
Update on CFI Canada's meeting with the Office of Religious Freedom
On April 4, 2013, the CFI Canada Board Chair Kevin Smith and National Director Michael Payton met with Dr. Andrew Bennett, Ambassador of Religious Freedom to discuss the growing number of international cases of atheist discrimination and persecution.
At the meeting, they got the firm commitment from the Ambassador that his Office will support and protect the rights of all people to question, change and even leave their religion.
At the request of Dr. Bennett, CFI Canada will continue to consult the Office of Religious Freedom as a strategic partner. Their acceptance of this offer allows CFI a unique and unprecedented role ensuring the office's commitment to freedom of belief.