Christian college prof to head Harper government’s new Office of Religious Freedom

religious+freedomOTTAWA —   A young religious studies professor from Ottawa will serve as Canada’s official champion of religious rights abroad, the Harper government announced Tuesday.

Andrew Bennett, who teaches the history of Christianity at Augustine College, a private Christian liberal arts institution in Ottawa, has been appointed the Ambassador for the Harper government’s new Office of Religious Freedom.

Dr. Bennett, who’s previously worked as an analyst and researcher in the Canadian government, is also a religious leader. He serves as sub-deacon and cantor with both the Holy Cross Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy and St. John the Baptist Ukrainian-Catholic Shrine in Ottawa.

The new post he’ll head will publicly criticize foreign regimes that mistreat religious minorities.

The Conservatives made a campaign pledge in 2011 to create this office; it was the only foreign policy promise in their election platform that year.

The Office of Religious Freedom – similar to a U.S. government organization set up by Bill Clinton in the 1990s – will be installed inside the secular confines of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

The new office 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.

Dr. Bennett, who has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Edinburgh in 2002, has worked for the Privy Council Office, Export Development Canada and Natural Resources Canada, as a scholar expert on the Americas Desk with Oxford Analytica and as a Researcher with the University of Edinburgh’s Institute on Governance where he focused on the process of devolution in Scotland.

He’s actively involved with the Shepherds of Good Hope mission in Ottawa and the Government of Canada’s Recruitment for Policy Leaders program.

The Conservatives are unapologetic about making a defence of the right to worship a central objective of Canadian foreign policy, noting, that assaults around the world on religious freedom have increased in recent years.

They say, however, it was a charismatic Pakistani foe of religious persecution that helped clinch their decision to create the office – a man who visited with Prime Minister Stephen Harper only weeks before he was shot dead in Islamabad.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was the first Pakistan minister for minority affairs and the only Christian serving in the Islamic state’s cabinet when he died on March 2, 2011. A militant Islamist group claimed responsibility for killing Mr. Bhatti, who had been urging reform of blasphemy laws.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said Mr. Bhatti made a major impression on Mr. Harper when they met in early February, 2011.

“The Prime Minister was deeply affected by this as was everyone who had the chance to meet him,” the minister said in an interview published last year. “His visit to Canada shortly before his assassination helped to galvanize within the government the reality of this kind of persecution.”

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