Vatican City - Repeated calls by Pope Benedict XVI in favour of religious freedom, especially for Christians living in Muslim- majority nations, are triggering angry responses, including from Egypt which is widely regarded as a moderate Muslim state.
Benedict's appeals for a stop to anti-Christian persecution culminated this week in his annual speech to ambassadors of the 178 states that have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
In what Vatican observers described as a "very focused" address, the pontiff condemned assaults against Christians, citing specific examples in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and China.
He also denounced the growing "marginalisation" of Christianity in secular Europe.
The speech echoed an earlier message on New Year's Day by the pontiff, in which he also called for greater protection of Christians around the world.
The text of that message - prepared to mark the Catholic Church's annual January 1, World Day of Peace - was distributed by the Vatican weeks earlier.
But to the ears of many, the message instantly gained more resonance when it was pronounced by Benedict just hours after a New Year's Eve bombing at a Christian Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, which killed 23 people and injured around 100.
Later the pontiff, addressing the faithful gathered in St Peter's Square, explicitly referred to the Alexandria attack, branding it a "vile and murderous gesture, like that of placing bombs near the houses of Christians in Iraq to force them to leave."
The pontiff's remarks drew condemnation from top Egyptian Muslim cleric, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who accused the Vatican of "meddling" in Egypt's internal affairs and of failing to denounce the murders of Muslims in places like Iraq.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi rejected the criticism, noting how "time and again, the Pope has condemned violence against all people - not only that which is perpetrated against Christians."
However, in his speech to the diplomats at the Vatican, Benedict indicated that he is particularly concerned about the plight of Christians, stressing how acts of discrimination against them "are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion."
Vatican observers also noted how both the tone and content of Benedict's speech contrasted with those uttered during the same occasion on previous years.
Popes typically "offer broad moral principles" in their foreign policy addresses, rather than specific legislative recommendations, John Allen wrote in the US publication National Catholic Reporter.
But in his speech "Benedict bluntly demanded that the anti- blasphemy law in Pakistan, which the country's small Christianity minority says is used as a tool of intimidation and persecution," be scrapped, Allen noted.
"How much difference Benedict's language will make on the ground remains to be seen, but it does clearly confirm that religious freedom, and especially the defense of embattled Christians, has become the Vatican's supreme diplomatic priority," Allen added.
Some of the fallout from the pontiff's stance has already become apparent.
In Pakistan, radical Islamists staged demonstrations in the aftermath of Benedict's speech. The hardliners were also praising the bodyguard and alleged murderer of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, an opponent of the blasphemy law.
Still, perhaps wary of a 2006 crisis with the Islamic world triggered by remarks made by Benedict, the Vatican, has appeared eager to quell the diplomatic spat with Egypt.
The Egyptian government's efforts to avoid an escalation of tensions between Muslims and Christians are "appreciated," the Vatican's top foreign affairs official Archbishop Dominique Mamberti assured Ambassador Lamia Mekheimar hours before she was to return to Cairo for consultations.
Benedict triggered outrage when in a September 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, he appeared to associate Islam with violence.
The pontiff later said his remarks had been misinterpreted and apologised for the response they provoked, including violence in several countries.