The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has ordered an independent, global review into the persecution of Christians of all nationalities amid claims that not enough is being done to defend the rights of nearly 200 million Christians at risk of persecution today.

The unprecedented 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 those under threat. It will be specifically directed at the persecution of Christians, and not religious minorities in general, reflecting the foreign secretary’s view that since Christianity is the established faith in the UK, it is legitimate for the state resources to be devoted to the review. The review is due to report by Easter.

Hunt believes that growing persecution of Christians in some countries is often a symbol of wider persecution. Christian groups claim as many as 3,000 Christians were killed in 2018, a doubling of last year’s figure.

The move comes as the government continues to face criticism for not offering sanctuary to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, and is still in custody almost two months after her conviction was overturned by the supreme court.

Bibi, a former farm labourer, is being held in a safe house as Pakistani authorities say her life would be at risk from Islamic extremists if she were freed. Her husband and children are also in hiding.

Bibi’s lawyer, relatives and supporters have appealed for the family to be given asylum in a European or north American country. Several countries have indicated their willingness to offer a home, but nothing concrete has emerged.

Last month, Theresa May was forced to deny reports that she had rejected the family’s appeal for asylum over fears that it might stir up tensions among British Muslims.

The prime minister told MPs the government was working with other countries on a resolution but that it was not in Bibi’s best interests to divulge the discussions with Pakistan.

“We could approach this in two ways. We could go out there and say something, just to show that the UK is doing that, or we could ask what is right for Asia Bibi. We are working with others in the international community and with the Pakistani government to ensure that our prime aim – the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family – is provided for.”

An annual survey of the countries where Christian persecution is greatest undertaken by Open Spaces put North Korea at the top of the list, ahead of Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan. Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, Libya and India – all countries in which the UK claims or seeks diplomatic influence – are placed in the top 20, underlining how sensitive the inquiry may prove, if it is not to cause offence.

In Hong Kong, Christians were due to go to church wearing black in protest at the persecutions of Christians by the Chinese state.

Hunt’s officials said he wants to use the review to consider some tough questions and offer ambitious policy recommendations. Britain already stands up for minorities across the world, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Yazidis, and the foreign secretary is keen that Christians are offered the same level of backing.

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”. He added Britain can and must do more to respond to the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.

Ahmad 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.”

In a sign of the growing anger in Christian communities at their treatment, the pope spoke of a new “era of martyrdom” evoking the early years of Christianity when believers were hunted down and put to death by the Roman state.

“It seems that the cruel and vicious persecution of the Roman empire has not yet ended,” Francis said. “A new Nero is always being born to oppress believers solely because of their faith in Christ.

“Cabals and cliques new and old live by feeding on hatred and hostility to Christ, the church and believers.”

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