Pope Benedict called on Monday 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.
Speaking in his annual address to diplomats days after a senior Pakistani politician who opposed the legislation was assassinated by his own bodyguard, the pope said the Pakistani law was a pretext for violence against religious minorities.
"I once more encourage the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law," the leader of the world's one billion Catholics said in a traditional New Year's address to ambassadors to the Vatican.
"The tragic murder of the governor of Punjab shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction," he said, adding that the law against blasphemy was an example of "norms prejudicing the right to religious freedom."
The pope, who has used many of his addresses in recent weeks to demand religious freedom, renewed his condemnation of attacks on churches that left dozens dead in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria.
"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 told the envoys.
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.
In his address to diplomats representing some 170 countries, the pope said recent attacks in Egypt and Iraq showed the need to urgently adopt effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.
Rare singling out
It is rare for a pope to use a public speech to specifically ask a country to change one of its laws but the pope urged Pakistan "to abrogate that (anti-blasphemy) law, all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities".
He made reference to last week's murder of Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab province and an outspoken liberal, who was gunned down for opposing the law, which imposes a death sentence for those who insult the Prophet Mohammad.
More than 50,000 people rallied in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi on Sunday against calls for a reform of the law, which was behind the shooting of Taseer by one of his bodyguards last week.
His killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who appeared in court for a remand hearing on Monday, has been widely praised among conservatives.
Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since November when a court sentenced to death a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi, in a case that has exposed deep rifts in the troubled Muslim nation of more than 170 million people.
While liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law to be dangerously discriminatory against the country's tiny minority groups, Asia Bibi's case has become a lightning rod for the country's Muslim religious right.
On Jan 1, Benedict, worried by increasing inter-religious violence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, announced that he would host a summit of world religious leaders in Assisi in October to discuss how they can better promote peace.
The Assisi meeting will take place on the 25th anniversary of a similar encounter hosted by the late Pope John Paul in 1986 in the birthplace of St Francis. It was attended by Muslim and Jewish leaders and heads of other religions, including the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Last month the pope said Christians were today's most persecuted religious group and that it was unacceptable that many had to risk their lives to practice their faith.