Vincent Nichols
Cardinal Vincent Nichols said persecution and faith in Jesus 'have always gone together' Getty

It is a "fact" that Christians are currently the most persecuted people in the world, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has said. Cardinal Vincent Nichols pointed to Brunei, where a recent ban on anyone celebrating Christmas in public was imposed, and other places in the world as proof that Christians were subject to mounting oppression.

He also warned there was a risk of the government "unintentionally bypassing" Christian refugees trying to enter the UK when asked if he thought they should be given preferential treatment over Muslims.

His comments come as Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, said Christians "represent the most persecuted people on earth in the 21st century". In a letter published in The Times, he wrote: "We are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation.

"We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will."

Bishop Baines went on to accuse the "largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia" of an "embarrassed silence" on the issue.

Asked if he agreed Christians are currently the most persecuted people, Cardinal Nichols told the Today programme on 24 December: "I think it's fact. Persecution and faith in Jesus have always gone together.

"The intelligentsia of this country ought to face up to this fact and stop shilly-shallying about it. If you think of the Sultan of Brunei's initiative. He follows in the steps of Russia, China, Romania, Vietnam, Ukraine –all of which at times have tried to ban Christmas."

Brunei is not the only country where Christians could be punished for celebrating Christmas in public this year. The government in Somalia has also imposed its own ban on Christmas, with an official at the religious affairs ministry announcing in a statement: "Those celebrations are not in any way related to Islam." People are free to celebrate Christmas in their homes, but Christmas decorations in hotels and other public venues are prohibited.

A "My Treedom" social media campaign has also seen Christian families defiantly celebrate Christmas in Middle East countries where traditional religious customs are forbidden. It comes as MPs this week also called on the UK government to persuade the UN to designate Islamic State (Isis) persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

Cardinal Nichols said he thought the UK should be "more forthright about our spiritual lives".

Asked whether he thought Christians fleeing persecution should be given a priority over refugees of other faiths trying to get into the UK, Cardinal Nichols said: "What I'm concerned about is that the resettlement programme which the government has set up [...] it's unintended consequence will be that there will be few if any Christians coming to this country."