Pope: Pakistan, others, must protect Christians

Pope Benedict XVI urged Pakistan to reverse its blasphemy laws, saying Monday they were a pretext for violence against non-Muslims, and demanded that all governments do more so Christians can practice their faith without fear.

Benedict issued one of his most pointed appeals yet for religious freedom in a speech to ambassadors accredited to the Vatican, saying it was a fundamental human right that must be protected in law and in practice.

Benedict has frequently denounced the wave of attacks against Christians in the Middle East and warned of the threat that religious intolerance poses to world security. On Monday, he catalogued a wave of injustices against the faithful from China to Nigeria in pressing governments to take action.

He cited, in particular, recent attacks on Christians attending Mass in Egypt and Iraq, where violence has forced droves of the faithful to flee elsewhere for safety. He said Christians are original members of these societies and deserve to live there in security with full civil rights.

"This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities," he said.

He urged governments on the Arabian peninsula to let Christians have churches — in Saudi Arabia worship is only allowed in private. And he cited China while saying the state should never have a "monopoly" over the faith — the Beijing government controls Catholic Churches in China, a source of great tension with the Vatican.

He told Pakistan to reverse its blasphemy laws, which carry a death sentence for insulting Islam, and noted the recent slaying of the Punjab governor who opposed them. The governor, Salman Taseer, had spoken out forcefully for clemency for a Christian woman sentenced to die for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Many Pakistanis have come out in support of the governor's killer since the assassination nearly a week ago. Crowds showered him with rose petals and shouted supportive slogans during court appearances.

"I once more encourage the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law, all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities," Benedict said.

Benedict also spoke of his concern about Europe and the West, saying religious freedom is at risk in places where all religion is so marginalized that society considers it alien or destabilizing.

He praised a recent Council of Europe decision granting doctors and nurses the right to exercise conscientious objection concerning abortion, and applauded European countries for joining Italy's fight to keep crucifixes displayed in public places.

Benedict plans to attend a daylong prayer for peace with other religious leaders in the hilltop Italian town of Assisi in October — an event first instituted by Pope John Paul II 25 years ago.