Address by Ambassador Bennett at Religious Liberty Dinner

April 18, 2013 - Washington, D.C.

Check Against Delivery

It gives me great pleasure to be here today as Canada’s first Ambassador of Religious Freedom. I want to thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity to talk about why religious freedom matters to Canada; to talk about how our new Office of Religious Freedom will tackle restrictions of this freedom; and how we plan to promote religious freedom as part of our principled foreign policy.

Since my appointment by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on February 19, I have been reaching out to faith communities in Canada and around the world. I have been consulting Canada’s allies and partners. And I have been directly registering Canada’s concern when religious groups are targeted for their faith. In reaching out to Canada’s Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, Coptic Orthodox and Muslim communities, among others, in engaging my counterparts in Kazakhstan, Brussels and London, I have been promoting freedom of religion as a core human right. A right that is under increasing threat around the world.

As the Government of Canada, we are deeply concerned about the situation in various parts of the world where individuals, including Ahmadiyya Muslims, Bahá’ís, Chaldean Catholics and Coptic Orthodox, Tibetan Buddhists, Jews and Muslim Rohingyas, among others, experience difficulty in their ability to worship and practise their faith in peace.

In the face of these injustices, Canada has not been silent. And we have not sat idly by.

Canada is speaking out on behalf of religious communities who are under threat. We are working with partners, many of whom are here today, to stand up for those who only wish to practise their faith in safety and security.

Religious freedom does not just mean freedom to worship. It also means freedom to study one’s faith; freedom to preach it; freedom to engage in missionary activity; freedom to change one’s faith and— yes—freedom to hold no religious beliefs.

As many of you know, the need for action in defending freedom of religion in many countries is urgent. Religious persecution is on the rise around the world. We are called upon to act and to defend the human rights of all. We must do so, because religious freedom is not a theological issue, it is a human issue. Every society must recognize the basic human dignity of all, regardless of faith. We all possess free will. We must have the freedom to exercise this in matters of faith.

I believe that human dignity is central to the message of freedom of religion. From my outreach to many different faith communities, it is clear to me that the pursuit of faith is inherent in our humanity. Each one of us seeks to understand who we are as human beings; how we relate to each other, to the world and how we relate to the divine or to a particular philosophy we might pursue. All of us have the right to express and manifest our beliefs, and this right and this freedom must be upheld and defended.

Canada is a pluralist society of many cultures and faiths. But we share a common humanity with people from the world over. As such, it is our common duty to defend the rights of the afflicted and give voice to the voiceless.

Prime Minister Harper put it this way:

“The cause is just. The need is urgent. And our responsibility is clear. As Canadians, as citizens of a free country, we have a solemn duty… [D]emocracy will not find—democracy cannot find—fertile ground in any society where notions of the freedom of personal conscience and faith are not permitted.”

In noting the widespread and increasing violations of religious freedom, the Prime Minister added, “we are compelled to do more by the sheer number and gravity of the offences against this fundamental right around the world and the assault it implies on democracy itself.”

We believe—and research shows—that when religious freedom, pluralism, peace and security are fostered, the soil is fertile for the growth of strong democratic institutions and long-term prosperity. Individuals who are free to practise their faith in safety and security are also free to contribute to the economic, cultural and political development of their nation—for the benefit of all.

As Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his 2012 Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, “Religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and inalienable right. It includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship. It includes the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public. It must be possible to profess and freely manifest one’s religion and its symbols without endangering one’s life and personal freedom. Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person; it safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect.”

I consider it an honour, a privilege, and indeed a blessing to serve my country and speak out on behalf of all those who face the risk of violence and persecution around the world. Theirs is a precarious existence.

It is for this reason that the Canadian government has created the Office of Religious Freedom within the ministry of foreign affairs. As Canada’s first Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I will ensure that my office works with international partners and Canada’s allies to promote and protect freedom of religion around the world. We will focus on protecting and advocating on behalf of religious communities under threat. We will oppose religious hatred. We will promote Canadian pluralism abroad. We will engage in open and frank discussion. We will promote the ability of religious communities to manifest their faith and to contribute to society openly and in a free and secure environment.

The goals of the Office of Religious Freedom reflect the core values of Canadians: democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the office responds to the wishes of Canadians to stem the persecution, violence and repression directed against many religious communities around the world.

As I’ve said, Canada contains many voices, but we share one humanity. We share one world, a world in which we must engage with each other as human beings and recognize in each other a dignity that demands true action: respect and tolerance of religious diversity and protection of freedom of religion and all that it implies.

Religious groups who face persecution will know that they have a friend and supporter in Canada. We will continue to strongly condemn all attacks on places of worship, whether at temples, synagogues, shrines, mosques, gurdwaras or churches. It is of utmost importance that every individual be able to practise his or her faith free from the threat of violence and discrimination.

As I focus the energies of our office, I am cognizant of the fact that many communities are not just under the threat of imminent violence, harassment, imprisonment and, in some cases, death. Many religious groups face unfair legislative and regulatory restrictions that can strip away fundamental democratic freedoms. Freedoms that include the basic right to vote, as we’ve seen with Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. These restrictions placed on religious groups under the guise of maintaining order and security undermine basic dignity and certainly the human rights of too many around the world.

In some cases, I have been heartened to see public and political officials move to condemn violence against certain communities. But sustained action must follow. We must all do more to ensure that individuals and families are no longer targeted simply because they practise one particular faith. Here we can see the intersection of freedom of religion and other key freedoms such as expression, association and civic liberties.

To echo Prime Minister Harper, “In the face of these injustices and atrocities, Canada will not be silent. Indeed, Canada has not been silent … Canada has spoken out consistently and emphatically. Without fear or favour, Canada defends human rights around the world.”

We will continue to voice our concern when our fellow human beings are persecuted for their religious beliefs. I am heartened and emboldened by those who speak out, thus putting their own safety at risk so that others may enjoy the same rights and freedoms. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, at this dinner last year, made reference to leaders such as Shahbaz Bhatti, the inspiring and courageous Minister for Minorities in Pakistan, who was assassinated two years ago for promoting freedom of religion or belief for all people of faith and speaking out against religious persecution. His life provides an enduring example for all of us and his efforts will not be forgotten by the Government of Canada.

I have heard it said that it will be difficult to promote freedom of religion or belief when so many different views exist. How, then, can we find common ground to promote freedom of religion?

As a starting point, we can look to existing human rights instruments for a way forward and establish a common understanding. For instance, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Canada is prepared to lead, with our partners and allies, to promote the dignity of the human being and each human’s inherent right to profess and practise their faith freely. We do so knowing that societies that protect religious freedom are most likely to protect other fundamental freedoms.

We do so knowing that it is no coincidence that religious freedom is prominently recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other declarations.

And we do so knowing that deeds go much further than words—that if we do not stand up against injustice, these international instruments are nothing more than words on paper. We need to work together to protect basic dignity for all, including the very basic right of religious freedom.

With this in mind, as Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I will ensure that my office will oppose religious hatred no matter which religious community it is directed toward. In my view, the office will reflect the very best of Canadian society. Furthermore, we are determined to work with partners around the world to support, promote and protect the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society. We will defend those who have religious faith and those who do not hold a particular faith so that they might fully exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief.

We will continue to work with our partners where we can, and we will not be afraid to speak out with a strong, independent voice to support freedom of religion when we need to.

I am emboldened to act. I urge you all to join Canada and all others who stand up for religious freedom or belief and human dignity for all. If we pursue the truth, we will accomplish the good.

Thank you.