Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to do all he could to defend religious freedom throughout the globe as he helped light a Chanukah menorah erected by Chabad-Lubavitch of Alberta.

Speaking in his hometown of Calgary, where leaders of the Jewish community and Mayor Dave Bronconnier had gathered Monday night for the 20th annual public menorah lighting ceremony at the City Hall Atrium, Harper praised the work of Rabbi Menachem and Rochel Matusof, who established the local Chabad House in 1988. He also pledged to remain a “staunch ally of the state of Israel” and called anti-Semitism an “evil so profound that it is ultimately a threat to us all.”

Although, Harper has regularly attended menorah lightings at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the Dec. 22 appearance was his first in his home district since becoming prime minister in 2006. In 2005, he attended a menorah lighting at the Matusofs’ home.

“It was an extraordinary event, [given that] both the prime minister and the city’s mayor attended,” said Lance Davis, executive director of the Calgary Jewish Community Council. Harper “is truly a remarkable prime minister, and we’re lucky to have him.”

Due to security precautions, Harper’s presence alongside the menorah came as a surprise to most of the more than 500 people who braved bitter cold to attend.

Reached just before the ceremony, 17-year-old Sarah Goldstein said that Chanukah in Calgary is characterized by the annual lighting.

“I’ve been going since I was five,” she said. “I love it.”

Just after the event, her father, Dr. Dan Goldstein, took pride in the fact that the prime minister chose to participate in an event during the holiday itself, rather than on some other date.

“It’s recognition for the community,” he said. “We’re honored.”