|It is rare for a pope to use a public speech to ask a country specifically to change one of its laws [Reuters]
Pope Benedict XVI has called for Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law and demanded that governments in predominantly Muslim countries do much more to protect minority Christians from violent attacks.
The law has been in the spotlight since November when a court sentenced to death Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four, for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.
Speaking in his annual address to diplomats in the Vatican City, the pope said the law was a pretext for violence against religious minorities.
The speech comes just days after Salman Taseer, a senior Pakistani politician who opposed the legislation, was assassinated by his own bodyguard.
"The tragic murder of the governor of Punjab shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction," Benedict said.
It is rare for a pope to use a public speech to ask a country specifically to change one of its laws.
An influential religious party in Pakistan said the pontiff's remarks were offensive and amounted to interfering in Pakistan's internal affairs.
"The pope has given a statement today that has not only offended the 180 million Muslims in Pakistan, it has also hurt the sentiments of the entire Islamic world," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior leader of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI).
"This is an interference in Pakistan's internal matters ... we respect the pope, being head of Christians and their religion, but he should also refrain from interfering in Muslims' religious affairs."
While liberal Pakistanis and human rights groups say the blasphemy law is dangerously discriminatory against the country's tiny minority groups, Bibi's case has become a lightning rod for the country's Muslim religious right.
The JUI has led several demonstrations in defence of the law in recent days.
"There would be an unprecedented reaction in Pakistan if any attempt was made to amend or repeal the law," Hussain Ahmed said.
Attacks on Christians
The pope also used his address to diplomats representing some 170 countries to renew his condemnation of recent attacks on churches that have killed dozens of people in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria.
He said those attacks showed the need to urgently adopt effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.
"This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities," he said.
Benedict also called for religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot worship in public, and communist China, which forces Catholics to join an official church.
"The particular influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence against them can be tolerated," he said.
On January 1, the pope, worried by increasing inter-religious violence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, announced he would host a summit of world religious leaders in Assisi in October to discuss how they can better promote peace.
Last month, Benedict said Christians were today's most persecuted religious group and that it was unacceptable that many had to risk their lives to practise their faith.
The Vatican is particularly worried about Christians in the Middle East, where continuing attacks, combined with severe restrictions, are fuelling a Christian exodus from the region.