Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday urged the release of a Christian woman in Pakistan facing the death sentence on a charge of blasphemy.

Benedict told his weekly public audience that Christians in Pakistan "are often victims of violence and discrimination."

He called for the release of Asia Bibi, a mother of five children who was sentenced to death in early November accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. He expressed his "spiritual closeness" to her and said he is praying that the "human dignity and fundamental rights of everyone in similar situations" is fully respected.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minority affairs, said a group of Muslim women reported Bibi to police after a dispute over whether she, as a Christian, was allowed to use the same water bowl as them. They accused her of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. She has been in prison for the past 1 1/2 years.

The verdict has drawn attention to Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which critics say are used to persecute Christian and other minorities, fan extremism and are often exploited for personal enmity.

Asked about the pope's remarks, Bhatti said "he was free to say whatever he wants. They shows his solidarity and concern for the suffering of humanity."

While the government is run by a broadly secular party, it relies on the support of Islamist groupings that are likely to protest if the blasphemy laws are struck down. Because of this, Bhatti said the government was working to amend the blasphemy laws to stop people misusing them.

Bhatti said Bibi's lawyers had appealed to a higher court to overturn the verdict, something he and other officials have said was likely.