Religious freedom impacts all Canadians whether they are religious or not says former head of federal religious freedom office

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa- CCN] – There is more to standing up for religious freedom than just making a statement of support once a year on International Religious Freedom Day, the head of a Canadian-based religious freedom organization says.

“As Catholics, we are called upon to live our religious freedom every day and live it in our daily lives. In some ways, we as Catholics, have privatized our faith and express it only in the pew. We must live our faith every day,” Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Institute for Religious Freedom, said in an interview with the Canadian Catholic News.

Both the Canadian and United States governments released statements on International Religious Freedom Day Oct. 27, pledging their commitment to religious freedom.

“International Religious Freedom Day is an important occasion to assert the universal human right of all people to practise their religion and hold beliefs, without discrimination, violence or abuse,” Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a statement which also recognized the impact that the global COVID-19 pandemic has had on the ability of people to observe their faith in a public way.

“This year, it is also a critical opportunity to recognize the resilience of faith and belief communities across the world in adapting their practices in the COVID-19 context,” Champagne said. “We also know that many situations of persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Canada remains concerned by the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; the ongoing persecution of Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and other faith and belief communities in China; the continued economic exclusion of Bahá’ís in Iran; and the imprisonment of Christians in North Korea,” he said.

“As a multicultural, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, Canada will continue to stand up for human rights, including the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, at home and around the world,” Champagne said.

The importance of religious freedom both at home and abroad was echoed by the Secretary of State for the United States Mike Pompeo in a statement released south of the border.

“A global movement on religious freedom is now a reality – one rich in regional, cultural, and political diversity – testifying to a universal, unequivocal truth: every person, everywhere, has the right to believe or not believe, change one’s beliefs, speak one’s beliefs, gather and teach,” Pompeo said.

“On this International Religious Freedom Day, the United States is proud to promote and protect religious freedom,” he said.

Dr. Bennett, who was briefly Canada’s Religious Freedom Ambassador when he was the head of the Canadian office for Religious Freedom, an office that was shuttered in 2016 after the Liberals defeated the previous Conservative government in the 2015 federal election, said that while there are life and death challenges to religious freedom around the globe, especially right now in China where Muslims and Christians are being harassed for their religious beliefs, there are also challenges to religious freedom here in North America as well.

When it comes to overt government actions that target religious faith communities such as in China when it comes to Muslims and Christians, Bennett said all Canadians who care about human rights must be willing to speak out in favour of the principle of religious freedom – regardless of whether they are religious or not.

“We can not be afraid to challenge those who try to repress religious freedom,” Bennett said. “The oppressors will take our silence as consent.

“In China, what we are seeing now is that they are writing the textbook on religious persecution,” he said.

In a statement on the Cardus website about religious freedom it is says, “beyond the legal framings of religious freedom contained in international human rights covenants is a freedom to contemplate who I am: Who I am in relationship to you; who I am in relationship to the created world; and who I am in relationship to God or to a particular philosophy.”

The statement, which is part of a report prepared by Bennett in 2017 for the Cardus religious think tank, said religious freedom is “foundational to our democracy, our common life together” adding when “freedom of religion is threatened or ignored, the living out of our public lives of faith can be undermined, sometimes gravely so.”

In his interview with the Canadian Catholic News, Dr. Bennett said the important thing for people of faith, whether they be Christians and Catholic or of another faith, is the ability to live their faith in an open manner.

“People have to be able to fully be themselves in the public square,” he said, and that means that people of faith and those who do not follow a faith must all be treated with the same level of dignity.