Pope Benedict XVI on Monday called on Pakistan to scrap a controversial law against blasphemy, saying it served as “a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities.”
“I once more encourage the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law,” the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics said in a traditional New Year’s address to ambassadors to the Vatican.
“The tragic murder of the governor of Punjab shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction,” he said, referring to the killing of Salman Taseer by one of his bodyguards last week over his liberal position on the law.
Controversy over the legislation flared both within Pakistan and internationally after a Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to hang last year for making derogatory remarks about the prophet Mohammed.
The pope has called for Bibi, who is awaiting execution, to be released.
More than 50,000 people rallied in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi on Sunday against calls for a reform of the blasphemy law, which have angered the country’s increasingly powerful conservative religious base.
In his address the pope also condemned anti-Christian attacks in Egypt and Iraq, saying they showed “the urgent need for governments of the region to adopt… effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”
A bomb attack against a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day killed 21 people. Forty-four worshippers and two priests were left dead after militants stormed a church in central Baghdad in October.
Addressing himself to political and religious leaders in Iraq, the pope said that Christians in the country should “be able to live in security, continuing to contribute to the society in which they are fully members”.
The pope also said the Roman Catholic Church should be able to operate freely through “suitable pastoral structures” in the Arabian Peninsula. The peninsula is dominated by ultra-conservative countries including Saudi Arabia.
Benedict quoted a statement from a recent Vatican meeting of bishops from the Middle East saying that Christians were “original and authentic citizens” of the region who were loyal to the countries in which they lived.
He said that religious freedom should not be only about freedom of worship but also about encouraging wider respect of human rights in the region and educating children “to respect their brothers and sisters in humanity”.
“Peace is built and preserved only when human beings can freely seek and serve God,” he said, adding that violation of religious freedoms around the world constituted a “grave attack on… dignity and freedom”.
Referring to China, he said Catholics there were experiencing “a time of difficulty and trial” and should be given full autonomy to organise themselves.
Tensions between the Vatican and China have risen in recent months because of the Holy See’s insistence that it be given the authority to appoint bishops.
The pope said Christian values were also under threat in Europe because of mandatory sex and civic education that promotes lay values — an apparent reference to a controversial new citizenship course in Spain.
“I cannot remain silent about another attack on the religious freedom of families in certain European countries which mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education,” the pope said.
Thousands of parents in Spain have complained about the course set up in 2007, which openly addressed topics such as homosexuality, divorce and abortion, and has been condemned by critics as being “anti-Christian”.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said after the address that the theme of religious freedom was coming to define the pontificate of Benedict XVI.
“The pope is at the heart of his mission,” he said on Vatican radio.
“The explicit and courageous way in which pope Benedict is advocating religious freedom for everyone… is certainly becoming one of the characteristic traits of this pontificate and its historic mission,” he said.