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Pope urges Pakistan to repeal blasphemy law
VATICAN CITY |
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict called on Monday for Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law and demanded that governments in predominantly Muslim countries do much more to protect minority Christians from violent attacks.
Speaking in his annual address to diplomats days after a senior Pakistani politician who opposed the legislation was assassinated by his own bodyguard, the pope said the Pakistani law was a pretext for violence against religious minorities.
It is rare for a pope to use a public speech to ask a country specifically to change one of its laws, but the pope urged Pakistan "to abrogate that (anti-blasphemy) law, all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities".
He referred to last week's murder of Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab province and an outspoken liberal, who was gunned down for opposing the law, which imposes a death sentence for those who insult the Prophet Mohammad.
An influential Islamist party in Pakistan said the pontiff's remarks were offensive and amounted to interfering in Pakistan's internal affairs.
"The pope has given a statement today that has not only offended the 180 million Muslims in Pakistan, it has also hurt the sentiments of the entire Islamic world," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior leader of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam.
"This is an interference in Pakistan's internal matters ... We respect the pope, being head of Christians and their religion, but he should also refrain from interfering in Muslims' religious affairs," he said.
The law has been in the spotlight since November when a court sentenced to death Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four, in a case that has exposed deep rifts in Pakistan.
While liberal Pakistanis and rights groups say the law is dangerously discriminatory against the country's tiny minority groups, Asia Bibi's case has become a lightning rod for the country's Muslim religious right.
The JUI has led several demonstrations in defence of the law in recent days.
"There would be an unprecedented reaction in Pakistan if any attempt was made to amend or repeal the law," Hussain Ahmed said.
NEED TO PROTECT MINORITY CHRISTIANS
The pope used his address to diplomats representing some 170 countries to renew his condemnation of attacks on churches that killed dozens in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria. He said those attacks showed the need to urgently adopt effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.
He also called for religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot worship in public, and communist China, which forces Catholics to join an official church.
"The particular influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence against them can be tolerated," he told the envoys.
On Jan. 1, Benedict, worried by increasing inter-religious violence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, announced he would host a summit of world religious leaders in Assisi in October to discuss how they can better promote peace.
Last month, the pope said Christians were today's most persecuted religious group and that it was unacceptable that many had to risk their lives to practise their faith.
The Vatican is particularly worried about Christians in the Middle East, where continuing attacks, combined with severe restrictions, are fuelling a Christian exodus from the region.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)
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