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Pope urges Pakistan to protect Christian minorities

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict urged Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday to guarantee protection of minority Christians, who have been the target of violence in the overwhelmingly Islamic country.

Pope Benedict XVI waves at the end of his weekly audience in St.Peter's square at the Vatican September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Zardari met the pope at his residence south of Rome at the end of a four-day trip to Italy aimed mainly at promoting trade.

A Vatican statement said Zardari’s talks with the pope and Vatican officials centred on minority Christians in Pakistan following violence against their communities two months ago.

“Emphasis was given to the need to overcome all forms of discrimination based on religious affiliation, with the aim of promoting respect for the rights of all citizens,” it said.

Seven people, including four women and a child, were killed in violence that broke out in Gojra in Punjab province in August when Muslims burned Christians’ homes after unsubstantiated accusations that some of them had desecrated the Koran.

Some 40 homes were burned down in the violence, which was condemned at the time by the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the World Council of Churches.

BLASPHEMY LAW

The Vatican statement said the talks also focused on “elements that have favoured such incidents”, an apparent to groups that have exploited Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which allows the death penalty for blaspheming Islam

Pakistani government officials said at the time that the violence was the work of Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda and the country’s Taliban movement.

The Vatican said the talks with Zardari examined “the situation in Pakistan, with particular reference to terrorism and the commitment to create a society more tolerant and harmonious in all its aspects”.

Convictions for blasphemy are fairly common in Pakistan with most cases involving members of religious minorities, but death sentences have never been carried out -- usually because convictions are thrown out on a lack of evidence.

The death penalty for blasphemy was introduced in the 1980s by then military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq. Later governments tried to amend the law but had to drop their plans because of opposition from Islamic groups.

The Vatican, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Archbishop of Canterbury have urged Pakistan to review the law, which the government has promised to do.

The Geneva-based WCC, a global body linking Protestant and Orthodox churches in 110 countries, said last month that Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan live in fear of persecution and even murder.

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