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Pope calls for religious freedom in Muslim states

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict Thursday said all states must guarantee the freedom for everyone to practice their faith publicly, a clear criticism of some Muslim countries where religious rights are restricted.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses as he leads the weekly general audience in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican November 10, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi

The pope issued the call in a document of nearly 200 pages called an “apostolic exhortation,” in which he offered his reflections on a synod of bishops that met in the Vatican in 2008 on the theme the “Word of God.”

He said the Catholic Church respected all religions and a separate section of the document was dedicated to relations with Muslims.

“All the same, dialogue would not prove fruitful unless it included authentic respect for each person and the ability of all freely to practice their religion,” he said.

“Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres,” he said, adding that this had to include the right to profess religion “privately and publicly and (for) freedom of conscience to be effectively guaranteed to all believers.”

“Reciprocity” is the term the Roman Catholic Church uses in demanding full rights for Christians in Islamic states where laws prohibit them from practicing their faith openly. It has often asked for reciprocity with Saudi Arabia.

At least 3.5 million Christians of all denominations live in the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and home to some of the most conservative Arab Muslim societies in the world.

The freedom to practice Christianity, or any religion other than Islam, is not always permitted in the Gulf and varies from country to country. Saudi Arabia, which observes an austere form of Sunni Islam, has the tightest restrictions.

The Vatican says Christians in predominantly Muslim countries should be allowed to practice their faith openly, just as Muslims can in predominantly Christian countries in Europe.

In Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, any form of non-Muslim worship takes place in private. Converting Muslims is punishable by death, although such sentences are rare.

Services and prayer meetings are often held in diplomats’ homes but access is limited, so Christians meet to worship in hotel conference rooms, at great risk.

The Vatican has expressed concern about the fate of Christians in predominantly Muslim Iraq, where 52 hostages and police were killed Sunday when security forces stormed a church that had been raided by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen.

In the document, the pope re-stated Vatican opposition to the use of violence in the name of religion.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie