Christian leaders in Pakistan have gained ground in a campaign against an election system that identifies voters by religion and, they claim, discriminates against religious minorities.

The Pakistani Supreme Court recently ruled that Christians may contest the post of village or district council head, a judgment that chips away at the nation's current voting system and in effect supports the notion of more voting rights for religious minorities, Christian activists claimed.

Elected representatives chose heads of more than 5000 village and municipal councils on August 2.

Although the nation's highest court did not endorse Christian demands for a complete abolition of the election system, Christian church leaders welcomed the ruling.

"We are happy that [the court] has taken note of the injustice we are facing," said Catholic priest Bonnie Mendis, a leader of the ecumenical Christian Organization for Social Action in Pakistan (COSAP). "It is for the government to give us equal rights as citizens."

Pakistan's separate electorate system (SES) was imposed in 1979 under General Zia-ul Haq's martial rule. Under the system, citizens cannot vote for candidates outside their own religious affiliation: Muslim voters can only vote for Muslim candidates, Christians for Christian candidates and Hindus for Hindu candidates. About 3 million of Pakistan's population of 140 million are Christian; approximately 97 percent of the nation is Muslim.

At the national level, 10 seats out of 217 at the National Assembly are reserved for religious minorities—four for Christians, four for Hindus and two for people of other religions.

Under SES, recently concluded village council elections permitted Christians voters a single vote as compared with five votes ...

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