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Harper announces long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Dr. Andrew Bennett as he is named ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom, in Maple, Ont., north of Toronto, Tuesday, Feb.19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A Ukrainian-Catholic has been picked to lead a new federal office with a mandate to promote religious tolerance globally, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday followed through on an election promise made almost two years ago.

At a mosque north of Toronto, Harper named Andrew Bennett as ambassador of the Office of Religious Freedom, which will operate as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“It says a lot about the government wanting to promote this aspect of human rights,” said Bennett, 40, an academic who has worked for the Privy Council Office.

“It’s (about) building awareness about the issue of religious freedom abroad; it’s about interacting with the various communities here in Canada who are in the diaspora from these areas where religious freedom is not respected.”

In remarks at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque, Harper said religious persecution is an urgent and ongoing global problem. He chronicled abuses against, among others, Jews, Coptic Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

“Without fear or favour, Canada defends human rights around the world,” Harper said. “We have not only spoken out, we have also taken action.”

Harper said the location of the announcement underscored the fact that Bennett’s job would be to promote religious freedom and tolerance regardless of belief or even non-belief.

Government sources said the Conservatives had a hard time finding someone to lead the office, which will have five full-time employees and come with a modest $5-million price tag that includes $500,000 for operations.

Colleagues described Bennett — currently dean of the 16-student Augustine College in downtown Ottawa — as an energetic, intelligent and empathetic man who at one point pondered the monastic life.

They said he would be able to rise to the political and philosophical challenges that will come with his new position.

“It would be a tough job for anyone but if anyone can do it, it’s probably him,” college president John Patrick said in an interview.

“He has both the intellectual and diplomatic skills that are needed.”

College administrator Harold Visser said Bennett would be able to reach out to all religions.

“There’s nothing in me that says Andrew is going to be, as some would suggest, some kind of Christian fundamentalist who’s out there to bang the Christian drum,” Visser said.

Tuesday’s announcement before guests representing several different faiths came after fits and starts that saw government officials touting the imminent creation of the office over the course of the past year.

New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair criticized the initiative for falling short of what he said the government had said it would do.

“The Conservatives have been promising for some time to have a major initiative on promoting democracy,” Mulcair said in Calgary.

“If we’re going to be pushing for democracy around the world, we should be talking about democratic institutions.”

Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community praised the initiative, but said Canada had to be vigilant in protecting its borders from those who wish to immigrate “based on their hidden religious hatred of others.”

The Conservatives have maintained the idea for the new department branch came after Harper met Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shabhaz Bhatti, shortly before he was shot to death by extremists in Islamabad in 2011. The extremists accused Bhatti, a Christian, of violating Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

Harper praised Bhatti as a person who worked fearlessly for the cause of religious tolerance.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who has met religious figures over the past 18 months as he sought to get the office going, was on a tour of Latin America and could not attend the announcement.

_ With files from Michelle McQuigge in Toronto, Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa, and Lauren Krugel in Calgary.