Persecution of Christians is 'close to our hearts', says Jeremy Hunt

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has commissioned a review of Christian persecution.Reuters

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has affirmed the UK's commitment to addressing the persecution of Christians following a meeting of faith leaders at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Wednesday.

Mr Hunt was joined by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the meeting of faith leaders, which included representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities. 

The meeting was held to discuss ways to protect Christians being persecuted for their beliefs and uphold the religious freedom of all people of faith. 

"This is an issue close to both our hearts. The recent atrocities in New Zealand and Sri Lanka remind us just why," he said.

The meeting was held on the same day as it was announced that Christian mother Asia Bibi had been able to leave Pakistan several months after being freed from death row for blasphemy. 

Her arrival in Canada, where she and her family have been granted asylum, brings to an end a 10-year ordeal that started when she was accused of blasphemy after sharing a drinking cup with Muslim colleagues on the fruit farm where she worked.

After the Supreme Court acquitted her last October, the UK came under pressure to grant Mrs Bibi and her family asylum.  In the end, it was Canada that stepped forward with an offer. 

Mr Hunt said her arrival in Canada was a "glimmer of light".

"I welcome the government of Pakistan's commitment to uphold the rule of law following the decision of its Supreme Court to confirm her acquittal," he said.

"Britain's primary concern has always been the safety of Asia Bibi and her family; we have been in contact with our partners to help ensure that she gets the freedom and security she deserves." 

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, said at the meeting that two areas of concern were the impact of military interventions on Christian communities and relations with countries where Christians are being persecuted.

"We have valid and essential foreign policy links around the world. But as you know better than I do, in some of them freedom of religion and belief is not accepted," he said in an address.

"We would like to encourage that, while being culturally sensitive, to say that freedom to worship is an essential part of being a human being."

He continued: "Secondly, that where the interests of minorities are concerned, foreign interventions can often have very serious long term [impacts], as we've seen with the collapse of the Christian population in some parts of the Middle East," he said.