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Archbishops Justin Welby and Vincent Nicholls submit recommendations to foreign office about persecuted Christians

by Cara Bentley

Bishop Philip Mounstephen is currently conducting a review into the experiences of Christians in dangerous situations, commissioned by the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Most Reverend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, said in a letter which accompanied their submission: "Christians form an important part of the social fabric in almost every country of the world. Yet in many places, our Christian sisters and brothers face persecution of an intensity and extent unprecedented in many centuries.

"Throughout recent years we have often travelled to the Middle East, the birthplace of our religion and one of those focal points of this persecution. There we have met with those who are suffering because of their faith. They have told us of having to flee their homes, beingstripped of all they own and seeing family members killed."

They said their submission to the Foreign and Commonwealth's inquiry was influenced by the people they have met and a commitment to making their voices heard.

The two heads of church denominations recommended that government focuses on making freedom of religion and belief a human right and have more joined-up thinking between religious freedom and the UK's trade policies and aid decisions - and therefore not treat freedom of religion as an 'isolated diplomatic activity'.

The Archbishops added that further attention needs to be given to improving the religious literacy of ministers, ambassadors and diplomats.

Last month, an Iranian's asylum request to the UK was dismissed by the Home Office because the staff member thought the applicant's belief that Christianity was a peaceful religion was not consistent with passages they found in the Bible with violent language.

This sparked criticism from Christians and senior clergy such as Archbishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Church in London, that the employee had either naively taken verses out of context or been deliberately insulting - concerns that led to a call for home office staff to improve their biblical literacy to avoid it happening again. 

They two clergy leaders said the government's work on freedom of belief should be scrutinised by a select committee, that it should look at more subtle persecutions such as discrimantory legislation as well as mass killings and that diplomats should get training on local faith communities.

They end by saying: "The UK has a great capacity to increase its support and protection for those who suffer violations of this most fundamental human right. As we know from the cry of our own communities around the world, this action is needed now."

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