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Canada seeks to advance religious freedom with Holy See

(Vatican Radio) Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, was in the Vatican this week to discuss with Curial officials ways in which the Canadian government and the Holy See can work jointly to promote religious freedom and to address religious persecution worldwide.

Ambassador Bennett’s four-day mission at the Vatican ended on Tuesday and included meetings with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States. He also had meetings with the Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

“We recognize, as the Canadian government, the role that the Holy See and the Catholic Church play in the world with a universal presence that has consistently defended freedom of religion, especially through statements such as Dignitatis Humanae, and certainly Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium has specifically spoken about religious freedom and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world,” he told Vatican Radio.

“So we want to engage more deeply with the Holy See to see how Canada and the Church can jointly advance religious freedom in the world, both through various dialogues but also I think in very concrete measures,” he continued.

Canada’s proposal to the Holy See was “very well received,” Bennett said. “I’ve been happy with the conversations I’ve had.”

Bennett specified that he and Cardinal Sandri discussed the Church’s activities in providing support for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, as well as the situation in Ukraine, which “is of great concern to the Canadian government.”

Bennett said he asked for suggestions from the Vatican about opportunities for partnership and would follow up to “reiterate that offer for Canada to support activities with the Church, where appropriate, to advance religious freedom.”

Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom was established just last year within the department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, with a mandate to “promote and defend religious freedom in the world” for all persons of faith, said Bennett.

Its activities include advocacy, programming and policy. Of its $5-million budget, $4.25 million is earmarked for programming.

“When we’re advancing religious freedom, it’s not a theological issue,” he clarified. “It’s a human rights issue and an issue of human dignity.”

His office operates from an understanding of religious freedom that includes the freedom to: publicly and privately profess one’s faith; worship in peace and security; and engage in missionary activity.

“I think the acid test for a country (about whether) they have religious freedom is the freedom to change your religion and by extension the freedom not to be coerced into changing your religion,” he added. “It’s also the freedom to not have any religious faith.”

Some countries have been receptive to Canada’s offer to help advance religious freedom, he said. Though dialogue with other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, is “very limited”.

To date, Bennett has been on mission to Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Hungary and Ukraine. His office also has projects already up and running in Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The Canadian ambassador was forthright in stating that his Catholic faith “is central” to his diplomatic work.

“My Catholic faith informs everything that I do, not only my work as ambassador but everything I do in my life,” he said.

Bennett serves as a subdeacon and cantor in the Ukrainian Catholic Church and has studied theology at the Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa; he earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Edinburgh. He also teaches history of Christianity at Augustine College in Ottawa.

Bennett told Vatican Radio that, in reaching out to different faith communities, he has found “all of the barriers drop and the conversation becomes that much richer” when they find out that he is a man of faith.

“My work is implicitly incarnational,” he added. “I have to be able to see the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God, in every person (whom) I engage, regardless of what their religious faith is. And if I can’t see that, then how can I possibly speak about human dignity?”

Listen to the full interview with Ambassador Andrew Bennett: RealAudioMP3
Report and interview by Laura Ieraci