VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI 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.

“I express my spiritual closeness to Asia Bibi and her family and ask that she soon regain her full liberty,” the pope said at the regular weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square on Nov 17. Bibi was convicted on Nov 14 by a Pakistani court for an alleged offence to the Prophet Muhammad, 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 Pakistan 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 Bibi had been lodged following an argument with some Muslim women. Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, reported that Bibi’s family had appealed to the high court in Lahore, Pakistan, hoping to overturn the sentence determined by a lower court. 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. - CNS

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