WASHINGTON - Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, says an attempt to discuss human rights in Turkey prompted that government to throw Quebec's controversial values charter back at him.
Bennett stressed that Turkey has made notable strides towards religious freedom in recent years. For example hijab-wearers are now allowed into public buildings.
However, Christian, Jewish and Alevi minorities continue to have concerns, including the expropriation of religious property.
He said he raised those concerns during a visit last fall and the reply came: Well, what about Quebec?
But Bennett said that's the only time a foreign official has raised the charter with him since he took up the post created by the Harper government a year ago.
Because his mandate does not involve domestic issues, Bennett said he can't offer a personal opinion of the Quebec legislation that would bar people who wear hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and large crucifixes from working in the public sector.
But he does reject any attempt to compare the persecution of minorities abroad with what's happening in Quebec.
"People in countries overseas where religious freedom is being violated are being imprisoned, tortured, killed because of their faith," Bennett said in an interview during a trip to Washington.
"In Canada, we have the courts. We have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. ... We can advance religious freedom overseas because we enjoy it in Canada. So that's the approach that I take."
He shared the Turkish anecdote in an interview looking back on his first year in the job and ahead to some of his priorities for the second year.
He began that second year in Washington and meetings with the Dalai Lama, think-tanks and his American counterparts.
Key differences between his new position and its older American equivalent were explored at a panel discussion Tuesday with a colleague from the U.S. Commission on International and Religious Freedom, organized by the Berkeley Center's Religious Freedom Project.
Bennett was asked whether his organization will even survive beyond the Harper government.
He said that is always a risk when it comes to political appointments, but the government's decision to name him, a non-partisan civil servant and place his office in Foreign Affairs gives the job a greater chance of long-term success.
He was also asked how he'd avoid "clientilism," the tendency to choose countries to criticize, depending on whether Canada has financial and political interests there.
Bennett said Harper government has repeatedly made clear that it's willing to disagree with major allies and not "go along to get along."
He cited China as a case in point.
Bennett met the Dalai Lama in Washington, without first co-ordinating it with the Chinese. The two discussed the ability of Tibetan Buddhists to practice their faith. They didn't talk about Tibetan independence.
"Canada is very consistent in having a one-China policy," he said. "In my interactions that I've had with Tibetan Buddhists, or Uyghur Muslims in Canada ... I always focus on the religious freedom aspect.
"We're not getting into discussions about various autonomy claims that those groups might be making... I'm the religious freedom guy."
He says he spent much of his first year developing contacts with different groups at home and abroad, with other governments and with Canada's foreign service officers.
This year he plans to get projects up and running through his $5 million office budget.
He's already earmarked money for three projects, including one in Nigeria to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue and one in Indonesia where an existing NGO will chronicle human-rights abuses and report back to the government there.
Bennett plans to announce a few more projects in the coming months.
He also hopes to clear up any misconception that his job involves theological discussions. Although he is religious himself, and considered becoming a Catholic priest, Bennett said his goal is to promote basic human rights, including the freedom of expression.
On his U.S. trip, he said, he was struck by the increasing level of concern over the persecution of Christians in different countries, especially following the upheavals in the Arab world.
"You're seeing the situation in certain countries where the Christian population is being wiped out."
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