Written by Evagelos Sotiropoulos
One thing is crystal clear from conversing with Andrew Bennett: his passion to promote religious freedom and enthusiasm to protect people persecuted because of their faith is prodigious.
Canada's first Ambassador for Religious Freedom, who celebrated his one-year anniversary last month, is intent on accelerating efforts to fulfill his mandate; this includes harnessing the many relationships cultivated thus far -- from diplomats in Ottawa such as Greek Ambassador Eleftherios Anghelopoulos and the Holy See's representative, to civil society leaders across the country.
In a recent interview, Bennett talked about his recent travels (which included "one of the highlights" of his life), current events, his plans for 2014 and joining Twitter -- his "handle," naturally, is @FreedomReligion.
As a Ukrainian Catholic, he is monitoring developments in Ukraine closely, which he visited in January. He hopes that "a shift towards a more fully democratic Ukraine will translate into greater protection for all religious communities."
Bennett also participated in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first official visit to the Middle East earlier this year. His trip to Israel was "rich and had a great impact" on him, particularly seeing "how religion dominates public life there, especially in Jerusalem."
During his visit, Bennett engaged with key counterparts, including a group of Rabbis working to improve Jewish-Muslim religious dialogue, as opposed to Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue -- the former, Bennett believes, is greatly needed. He also met with a number of senior religious leaders from the Anglican, Armenian and Greek communities -- the latter's Patriarch, His Beatitude Theophilos, was described by Bennett as "a holy monk and deeply pastoral bishop with tremendous insight into the region."
The threat faced by religious minorities in the Middle East is never too far from the Ambassador's consideration: taped on his computer monitor is a picture of two abducted Syrian Orthodox hierarchs (Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo and Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of Aleppo) who he requests regular briefings about from officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs, adding that "certainly we believe they are still alive."
In Turkey, Bennett described meeting His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as "one of the highlights of my life." He called his 60-minute one-on-one "such a blessing" and used it as an opportunity to discuss many issues -- including how we are called to live our life as Christians -- with someone "so tremendously wise" as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
Despite the challenges faced by religious communities in Turkey, issues the Ambassador raised during "a frank conversation" with officials in Ankara (including the confiscation of church properties and the continued closure of Halki Seminary), Bennett, who has a "great relationship" with the Turkish Ambassador in Ottawa, says Turkey has made some meaningful progress as of late.
Looking forward, Bennett says he has a number of trips planned in the coming months, including visits to Southeast Asia and Africa; these trips, the Ambassador says, help him to "understand the situation on the ground."
Additionally, the Office will continue to roll-out programming through its Religious Freedom Fund, with "forthcoming announcements that will deepen our relationships with ‘like-minded countries,'" such as the United States and United Kingdom. Bennett is also eager to intensify his outreach efforts this year, particularly with Canada's Muslim community.
Part of his Office's outreach efforts include using social media; asked if Tweeting or even the issuing of formal statements actually add any real-world value, Bennett is adamant that "we have to raise awareness and issues on a regular basis... and call certain governments to account."
While he is "very happy" with the progress made thus far, asking him what his biggest disappointment from year-one is causes him to pause: "There's so much work to be done and so much persecution in the world for people of faith, we just can't address it all."
As he enters the second of a three-year term, the Ambassador hopes to "entrench" his Office within the Department. Bennett and his staff of four -- which includes a deputy director, program manager, policy advisor and executive support, report to the Assistant Deputy Minister in the Department's Global Issues division. He also chairs an Interdepartmental Consultative Committee which meets twice-a-year to discuss human rights issues.
While recognizing the limitations of his Office, Bennett is boosted by the "sheer amount of goodwill among Canadians" for his mandate and given his high energy level, the public will continue to hear about the Ambassador's fight for religious freedom.