Rarely does Pope Benedict XVI make appeals on behalf of individuals. But the Pope broke from custom Nov. 17, when he ended his weekly general audience with a plea for Pakistani officials to free a Christian mother recently sentenced to death.
Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four, was convicted of blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad and sentenced to death by hanging in the town of Sheikhupura, near the capital city, Lahore.
Bibi has said she is being persecuted for defending her faith to Muslim co-workers who claimed that Christianity was a "false religion." She was jailed days later, brought to trial and convicted for blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan, which is a self-professed Islamic Republic where the rights of religious minorities are sharply restricted.
The Pope said Pakistan should grant Bibi “complete freedom ... as soon as possible.” He added a pointed reference to the lack of religious freedom in the country. He also expressed “great concern” for Christians there, “who are often victims of violence or discrimination.”
In his appeal, Pope Benedict expressed his “spiritual closesness” to Bibi and her family.
Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, Pakistan was quick to respond to the Pope's appeal.
He expressed gratitude for the Pope's support of Bibi and for his recognition of the “sufferings of Christians in Pakistan and our rights," he told the Vatican missionary news agency Fides.
The Pope also prayed for all peoples in situations similar to Bibi's, urging that “their human dignity and fundamental rights may be fully respected."
A formal appeal against Bibi’s sentence is being filed.
Peter Jacob, the Pakistani Bishops Conference's executive secretary for justice and peace, told Vatican Radio Nov. 16, that "the death sentence has shocked the civil society" in Pakistan.
“There are 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,” he said.
The bishops’ campaign has generated more than 75,000 signatures demanding repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws. In addition, Aid to the Church in Need is organizing campaigns in Italy and France.
The Pakistani government has been flooded with more than 40,000 e-mails calling for Bibi’s release and for repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws, Fides says.
Bishop Francis said there is also a campaign in Pakistani churches "to pray for her release, entrusting her suffering to the Lord."
The guilty verdict is "very sad" and "a great injustice and suffering to inflict" on Bibi's family, he said, but it is indicative of "continuous abuse of the law on blasphemy."