The current tensions across the Middle East are cause for concern for all faith groups in the region, said Canada’s ambassador of religious freedom.
“The Mideast is certainly front and centre” in terms of focus, said Ambassador Andrew Bennett in a recent interview with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. “I think we have to be very aware of what is going on in the Mideast. Canada is a close ally of Israel, and we will defend and continue to uphold Israel’s legitimate right to exist and the important role that it plays.”
Bennett pointed to the threats posed by ISIS, the ongoing crisis in Syria, and the situation with Hamas in Gaza.
“Israel is very much on the front line of these issues, and I think it’s also important to recognize that, while Israel is a Jewish state, it is a pluralist society where you have many different faith traditions represented,” he said.
Through Bennett’s office, Canada also acts as a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Bennett is the head of Canada’s delegation to the Alliance and is active in keeping watch over any instances of anti-Semitism abroad.
“We always need to be vigilant when combating any form of hatred, particularly anti-Semitism, whether it is rearing its ugly head in its old forms in Europe or whether it’s taking on a new guise as we see expressed in a lot of rhetoric around Israel and Gaza and so forth.”
While Bennett’s mandate predominantly takes his focus to a global level, he also raises awareness in Canada. For example, on May 22, he was at Agudath Israel Congregation to participate in Solidarity Sabbath, a global initiative by the U.S.-based Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice calling attention to anti-Semitism.
“For me to be a good Christian, I need to stand with the Jewish community. We’re cousins,” he said.
Bennett said he is also heartened that individuals in Ottawa’s Jewish community have approached him to ask how they, as a community, can help combat persecution of Christians around the world. He cited a 2014 report by the Pew Research Forum that said Christians are harassed in many countries as social hostilities based on religion increase.
Bennett was appointed Canada’s first-ever ambassador of religious freedom in 2013. He heads a team of six in the Office of Religious Freedom under the auspices of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Bennett, who identifies as a “fairly devout” Ukrainian Greek Catholic, arrived in Ottawa to work for the Privy Council in 2001.
“I’ve been fairly active in different religious circles around town and I think I was a bit of a known quantity in terms of my interesting mixture of [my] political science background with theology and a good knowledge of different religious issues,” he said. “It’s been a passion of mine for some time.”
There are a number of factors that influence Bennett and his team’s priorities. At any given time, the office will be working with 15-20 countries where there are extreme government restrictions on religious freedom or countries where there are social hostilities by one faith community against another, or both.
The department focuses on countries where the situation is most egregious, Bennett said.
“We have to be responsive as well as having a broad perspective on what’s going on in the world,” noting much of his focus in the immediate future is on projects in Iraq and Ukraine.
“We have a lot to keep us busy,” he said.