The European Commission has appointed a new religious freedom Special Envoy after a two year vacancy.
The Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU was created in 2016 in the wake of atrocities committed against religious minorities by the so-called Islamic State.
The appointment of Christos Stylianides is the first time the post has been filled in two years after the mandate of former Special Envoy Ján Fige ended in 2019.
Stylianides was the former European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management until 2019, before becoming special adviser on education in emergencies, migration and inclusion to the current Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas.
The Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF) said Stylianides' appointment comes at a time when religious freedom is increasingly threatened around the world.
"Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. The reappointment of a Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU is an important step in showing real commitment to this fundamental right," Adina Portaru, Senior Counsel for ADF International in Brussels.
"We lament that this position has been vacant for almost two years. We hope that the new Special Envoy will quickly get to work focusing on the needs of the most persecuted worldwide."
The special envoy is tasked with visiting persecution hotspots, raising awareness of violence against religious minorities, and advocating for religious freedom.
ADF said the Special Envoy had played a "decisive role" in securing the safe departure of Christian mother Asia Bibi from Pakistan after her death sentence for blasphemy was overturned in 2018.
It warned, however, that there are many more religious minorities in need of urgent support from the EU.
"We urge the European Commission to strengthen the position of the Special Envoy and build on the important work already achieved," Portaru said.
"The victims on the ground are in dire need of a decisive response from the EU. With its Special Envoy, the EU can lead in the international response. That leadership is needed now more than ever."
Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International, called on the EU to make religious freedom a priority.
"The Special Envoy has played a crucial role in bringing the horrors of religious persecution to light at the European level," he said.
"The role has created awareness around some of the worst and most persistent violations of fundamental rights around the world and helped focus EU efforts to counter them.
"The EU should not only continue, but intensify efforts to protect freedom of religion or belief around the world."
The Bishops of the European Union also welcomed the appointment of Stylianides.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, President of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), said: "We wish him success in this important role of promoting a fundamental right and a core value of the European Union threatened in many parts of the world and we look forward to work closely together."