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Pope urges Pakistan to scrap blasphemy law

Pope Benedict XVI pictured during an audience with ambassadors today (AP Photo/Alessia Pierdomenico, Pool)

Religious freedom and religious diversity are not threats to society and should not be a source of conflict, Pope Benedict XVI today told diplomats from around the world.

The Pope asked the representatives of 178 countries, as well as of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the European Community and the Knights of Malta, to examine how well their own countries respected the right of individuals to believe, to act in accordance with their conscience, to gather with other believers for worship and to carry out the educational and social projects their faith inspires.

Pope Benedict met diplomats accredited to the Holy See and continued his Christmas-season focus on the connection between religious liberty and peace, and on threats to full religious freedom in western democracies as well as in countries notorious for violating human rights.

Once again he denounced attacks on Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria and expressed concern about the renewal of Chinese government restrictions on Catholics.

Condemning the murder last week of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, the Pope said the country must overturn its blasphemy law, which makes insulting the Prophet Mohammed or the Koran punishable by death.

Taseer supported the move to abrogate the law, which the Pope said often “serves as a pretext of acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities”.

The Pope also announced that the Communist government of Vietnam had accepted his appointment of a papal representative to Catholics in the country. Vietnam agreed in June to allow the Pope to name a representative as a first step toward diplomatic relations; Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the representative’s name would be announced shortly.

Pope Benedict told the diplomats that when religious believers were free to practice their faith, society benefited from an increase in upright behavior, respect for others and solidarity with the poor and weak.

Discussing threats to full religious freedom in western democracies, the Pope expressed concern about efforts to push religion to the margins of public life and about situations in which citizens are denied the right to act in accordance with their religious convictions, “for example where laws are enforced limiting the right to conscientious objection on the part of healthcare or legal professionals”.

The Vatican has insisted on the right of Catholic healthcare workers, including pharmacists, not to be involved in abortions or other procedures that violate Church teaching on the right to life.

Fr Lombardi said the Pope’s reference to conscientious objection in the legal profession referred to the right of Catholic lawyers and judges to refuse to participate in cases involving adoption by gay couples, for example.

Pope Benedict also condemned educational programmes that seek to “mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education” with content opposed to Catholic teaching. Church leaders and Catholic parents in Spain have objected to a public school curriculum that presents homosexuality and abortion in a positive light.

The Pope told the diplomats that there is no such thing as a “scale of degrees of religious intolerance” whereby a certain amount is acceptable.

It is not permissible to infringe on the freedom of conscience out of concern to uphold “other alleged new rights which, while actively promoted by certain sectors of society and inserted in national legislation or in international directives, are nonetheless merely an expression of selfish desires lacking a foundation in authentic human nature”, the Pope said.

Fr Lombardi said those “alleged new rights” included a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion and the right of homosexual people to marry and adopt children.

Miguel Diaz, the US ambassador to the Holy See, attended the audience with the Pope and said the US government would continue to work around the globe for the defence of human rights, particularly the right to religious liberty.

“One of the great things about our democracy is that, from the beginning, religious freedom has been defended,” he said in an interview with the American Catholic News Service.

Each of the ambassadors had a chance to personally greet the Pope at the end of the audience. Mr Diaz said he assured the Pope that the United States would continue to defend religious freedom around the globe, and he said the Pope thanked the US for its commitment.