VAUGHAN, Ontario, February 22, 2013, (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Conservative government fulfilled an election promise on Tuesday and established the Office of Religious Freedom dedicated to promoting freedom of religion around the world.
“This is not an office to promote a particular religion. This is an office to promote religious diversity and religious tolerance around the world,” said Prime Minister Steven Harper at the inauguration ceremony which took place at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque in Maple, Ontario.
Dr. Andrew Bennett, the first ambassador of the newly created office, told reporters after the event that his office’s mandate is to “promote religious freedom, freedom of conscious, freedom of belief, around the world.” He said that promoting religious freedom is “part of Canada’s principal foreign policy” and part of the “values that Canadians believe strongly in: freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights.”
Bennett, in his early forties, is Catholic and the dean of Augustine College, a small, non-denominational college in Ottawa. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Edinburgh and an M.A. in History from McGill University. He is working part-time towards a degree in theology (Eastern Christian Studies) at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies, Saint Paul University. Dr. Bennett was ordained as a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in 2011.
John Patrick, president of Augustine College said that the people who chose Bennett “did their homework. He won't let them down.”
Bennett said that the new office has both a national and international dimension that included “building awareness about the issue of religious freedom abroad” and “interacting with the various communities here in Canada who are in the diaspora from these areas where religious freedom is not respected”.
“We live in a pluralistic society here in Canada where all religions are respected, and that certainly is going to be the goal of this office. This is not about a theological question; it’s about a human question. It’s a human issue, not a theological issue. So, all religions, all people of faith, and again those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected. And so, that’s what this office is about,” he said.
Doug McKenzie, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Canada, told LifeSiteNews.com that he is “very pleased” with the opening of the new office. Voice of the Martyrs is a Canadian non-profit charitable organization that helps persecuted Christians worldwide.
McKenzie said that his organization is “supportive of the efforts of the Canadian government to promote religious freedom”.
“We congratulate Prime Minister Steven Harper and Dr. Andrew Bennett in this appointment,” he said.
Don Hutchinson, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, one of the six panelists consulted by the government during the planning stage of the office, praised the selection, as well.
“Ambassador Bennett has the heart and the smarts for this responsibility. He will do well,” he said.
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Hutchinson pointed out on a blog that Bennett’s personal faith, his service as dean and professor of church history at Augustine College, and his prior experience working for government “situates him as a human being who understands religious belief, a key component of historic persecution and how to manage the development of a fledgling office with responsibility to both political and bureaucratic masters”.
Hutchinson hoped that the office will establish a multifaith advisory council to represent the diversity of Canadian faith communities.
“The largest faith community in Canada, and the planet, is Christian – including the distinct traditions of Roman Catholic, Orthodox (including Greek, Coptic and Eastern rite, etc.), Traditional, and Evangelical,” he said.
Hutchinson pointed out that “Christians are also well documented to be the most persecuted on Earth”.
The concept of religious freedom has been rigorously defended by the Catholic Church. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared in 1965 that the “human person has a right to religious freedom”.
“This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits,” the council fathers stated at that time.
Pope John Paul II has been credited with dismantling the Communist project in history through his fierce and enthusiastic promotion of religious freedom on a worldwide scale.
In his 1979 inaugural papal encyclical Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II, who grew up in Poland under the iron grip of communism, wrote that the “curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but it is above all an attack on man's very dignity, independently of the religion professed or of the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have”.