As Easter approaches late this month, for many Christians it is a time to renew faith and reflect on the role of Jesus in bringing Christian values to life. But it is a sad fact that, just as Christ was persecuted for his beliefs, many Christians around the world are not free to practice their religion as they wish.
Nearly a quarter of a billion people are suffering persecution today because of their Christian faith. In addition, 80 per cent of people who suffer persecution because of their faith, are Christian.
I know this is an issue of great concern to the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, who has acted to boost the UK's role as a defender of Christians facing persecution overseas. As part of this renewed focus, he has asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct an independent review into the UK's response to the persecution of Christians abroad.
This review aims to map levels of persecution and other discrimination against Christians in key countries around the world. It will provide an objective assessment of the impact and levels of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) support, and make recommendations to the Foreign Secretary.
That is not to say no action has been taken so far. In fact, the UK has played a leading role in bringing together other countries that share our values and giving a voice to those who do not have one. The Church of England also meets the FCO regularly to discuss freedom of religion and belief. But the outcome of this review should be for the FCO to gain a deeper understanding of what it can do better in this arena.
I look forward to reading the reports emerging from this Review, which the Bishop intends to focus on evidence and consultation with a range of participants, including survivors and victims, civil society institutions, the diplomatic community, governmental and multilateral entities. The Initial Report to the Foreign Secretary is expected by the end of April, with briefings for MPs in the following month, which I hope to attend.
Interestingly, the place and type of religion in Parliament came to the fore recently, when there was discussion about whether the day should still begin with ‘prayers’. In both Houses of Parliament, sittings begin with prayers that follow the Christian faith, though there is no compulsion to attend. I and many of my colleagues appreciate the opportunity for a few minutes calm reflection before the formal business of the day begins - not least during this critical period in our country's history. So I will not be supporting removal of daily prayers from our proceedings.
In more local news, I was pleased to welcome the former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones KBE, to Ludlow last month for a service of thanksgiving in St Laurence’s, Ludlow for Mortimer Forest. The Bishop had worked with the Forestry Commission to produce an Independent report in 2012, so was a most relevant speaker for what was a very positive service.
I hope all readers have a restful Easter break over the longer weekend, and that people across the country embrace the sense of renewal that Easter and the natural world at this time of year inspire.
Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP