Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the UK “must do more” to help persecuted Christians and has ordered an independent review to assess if the British Government is doing enough.
The Foreign Office review will be led by the Bishop of Truro, Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, and will make recommendations on the practical steps the government can take to better support some of the 215 million Christians globally who faced persecution last year.
Mr Hunt said: “Britain has long championed international religious freedom."
"So often the persecution of Christians is a telling early warning sign of the persecution of every minority”, he continued.
Due to be published at Easter, the review will map the persecution of Christians in "key countries" in the Middle East, Africa and Asia; provide an analysis of current UK government support and offer recommendations for a "cohesive and comprehensive policy response”.
The Foreign Office said the review would "consider some tough questions and offer ambitious policy recommendations”.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, the Government's special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, said: “This is an issue that resonates deeply: 70 years ago during the partition of India, my family had to leave their home and livelihoods simply because of their faith.
“Seventy years later religious persecution is on the rise around the world. Our government has prioritised freedom of religion or belief and the review we are announcing today is about providing an objective view of Britain’s support for the most vulnerable Christians globally.
“We are seeking to identify additional practical steps to help stop the appalling levels of violence that saw 3,000 Christians murdered last year because of their faith. I am absolutely committed to not only standing up for the persecuted, but protecting and strengthening this fundamental human right.”
The anti-persecution charity Open Doors UK & Ireland welcomed the announcement.
Open Doors CEO Henrietta Blyth said: "Persecution of Christians is a key issue of our time – we must act to be the voice for those who are so often voiceless because of the persecution they suffer. This review is a great first step and offers real hope for change at a time when UK trade is to be negotiated internationally. Through these negotiations the UK has an opportunity to ensure countries enshrine freedom of religion or belief and change attitudes in their societies so that all religious minorities can enjoy a better future."
The case of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Catholic woman who had her conviction of blasphemy overturned and is appealing for asylum in the UK following death threats from Islamic extremists, has brought the plight of persecuted Christians to national attention.
In early December, Labour MP Mike Kane, on behalf of the Catholic Legislators' Network of peers and MPs, asked in the House of Commons whether the government planned to offer her asylum. He called on the government seriously to consider an asylum claim.
Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, responded that he could not comment on individual cases, but the priority was to ensure that Asia Bibi and her family are safe.
Prime Minister Theresa May had earlier been forced to deny claims she had blocked an appeal by the Home Secretary to grant asylum to Asia Bibi.
John Pontifex, a spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said in December: “The family of Asia Bibi have repeatedly told me that asylum is urgently needed, saying that extremists have gone from door-to-door in their neighbourhood in search for them. They are in hiding and are very frightened. Because of this, it is vital that the Government hears their pleas for help and acts in due time. The reports we have received about the threats to the family’s safety strongly indicate that any prevarication on this issue could potentially have fatal consequences.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales told The Tablet on 14 November that the Conference “has been actively engaging with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, encouraging them to continue working with international partners to ensure safe sanctuary for Asia and her family”.