Vatican City: 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
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. It 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.