A government review into the unprecedented persecution of Christians around the world has been welcomed by DUP MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Shannon.
The DUP MP said the probe launched by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was vital in response to what the Mr Hunt called “a dramatic rise in violence” against followers of the religion.
On average, over the last year around 250 Christians have been put to death for their beliefs every month.
“It is a reality that more Christians are being persecuted for their faith today than at any time in the history of the Christian church, and it is vital that the UK becomes a strong voice in standing up for the right of freedom of religion and belief throughout the world,” Sir Jeffrey said.
“This is something we have been pushing for for some time because there has been a marked increase in the persecution of Christians worldwide.
“We have been making representations to Jeremy Hunt, and we raised it with the prime minister as well, about the need for the UK to be more active in the international arena in upholding the rights of freedom of religion and belief for people across the globe.”
The independent global review will look at the UK’s efforts to help some of the 215 million Christians worldwide the Foreign Office (FCO) says faced discrimination and violence last year.
Lagan Valley MP Mr Donaldson added: “So we are pleased that this review has been announced and we will seek to ensure that it is a meaningful process that results in the UK policy being strengthened in this area.”
His DUP colleague Jim Shannon chairs the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief at Westminster.
Last year the Strangford MP tabled a Commons motion on the plight of persecuted Christians – calling on the government to “do more both in its foreign policy and through its aid work to defend and support people of Christian faith”.
Addressing the Commons, he said: “Let us go right across the world from North Korea, where it is estimated that some 100,000 Christians suffer in horrific prison camps, to Eritrea where 2,000 Christians are in jail for their beliefs and 31 died in custody last year. Then there are countries in which Christians are in a minority – Sudan and Somalia, for example, where they are pursued relentlessly.”
On Wednesday, Mr Shannon said: “This is very important to me, but also very important to my constituents. While I speak out as Christian, and I speak out for those of the Christian faith, I also speak out for those of other faiths and no faith because I believe my Lord loves everybody.
“We are very fortunate at the minute to have very influential [government] ministers in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing.”
Mr Shannon added: “This year, 100,000 Christians will die because of their faith, some 200 million will be persecuted for their faith, and two billion live in what can only be described as an endangered neighbourhood – so that is the level of persecution of Christians.”
The government review will be led by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Reverend Philip Mounstephen, and is due to report back around Easter.
The review will “consider some tough questions and offer ambitious policy recommendations” that would allow the UK to offer the same backing to Christians as it does to groups like the Kurdish Yezidis who faced extermination by Islamic State, the FCO said.
Mr Hunt said: “Britain has long championed international religious freedom and the Prime Minister underlined our global leadership on this issue when she appointed my excellent colleague Lord Ahmad as her Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or belief.
“So often the persecution of Christians is a telling early warning sign of the persecution of every minority. Today I have asked the Bishop of Truro to look at how the British Government can better respond to the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. We can and must do more.”
The intervention comes after international concern over the treatment of Asia Bibi – a Christian woman who faced threats to her life after being acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Ms Bibi was held for eight years under a death sentence for supposed blasphemy after she drank from the same well as Muslim colleagues.
Her conviction was reversed by Pakistan’s supreme court earlier this year.