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Pope calls for release of Christian woman sentenced to death

Pakistani Christians protest against the killing of two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy earlier this year (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

Pope Benedict XVI has called for the release of a 37-year-old Christian woman who faces the death penalty in Pakistan after being convicted on charges of blasphemy.

At the weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, the Pope said: “I express my spiritual closeness to Asia Bibi and her family and ask that she soon regain her full liberty.”

Mrs Bibi was convicted on Sunday by a Pakistani court for an alleged offence to the Islamic prophet Mohammed, news reports said.

The Pope said: “The international community is following the difficult situation of Christians in Pakistan with great concern.”

He also said he prayed “for all those who find themselves in similar situations” and asked “that their human dignity and fundamental rights are fully respected”.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Pakistani Bishops’ Conference, said “the death sentence has shocked the civil society here”, which, he added, “is very active”.

He said there were “a number of appeals going on – signature campaigns – to make the authorities, the prime minister and parliament aware of people’s sentiment that this injustice is not acceptable to the people of Pakistan.”

Vatican Radio said that the charges against Mrs Bibi had been lodged following an argument with some Muslim women.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, reported that Mrs Bibi’s family had appealed to the high court in Lahore, Pakistan, hoping to overturn the sentence determined by a lower court in the district of Nankana Sahib.

Avvenire said that it was the first time a woman had been sentenced to death under the blasphemy law.

Local Catholics have said in news reports that the law is often abused and Avvenire said it is often used against religious minorities in the Muslim country.

Bishop Rufin Anthony of Isalamabad-Rawalpindi told the missionary news service, AsiaNews, that “the law is abused and manipulated for petty reasons and it is time to repeal it to make Pakistan a modern country”.

Avvenire quoted Faisalabad Bishop Joseph Coutts as saying that in asking for the abrogation of the law against blasphemy “we don’t want to encourage disrespectful acts toward the prophet”. But, he said, “we deplore its application when used to hurt an adversary or an enemy”.