Church leaders in Pakistan have hailed the scrapping of electoral rules that they say discriminate against Christians and other religious minorities.

The Pakistani government announced on January 16 that it was abolishing the Separate Election System (SES). Christians have claimed that this system marginalized them and other religious minorities by allowing them to vote only for candidates of their own faith.

The announcement came as part of a package of measures ahead of general elections scheduled for October.

"We are no longer second-class citizens. We are now full-fledged citizens of Pakistan," said Bishop Samuel Pervez, president of the National Council of Churches of Pakistan (NCCP).

"This has been a long-standing demand of the Christian community. The overwhelming majority of people are happy that the government has conceded to our demand."

Pervez said that Christians had "certainly benefited" from the declared determination of Pakistan's president to deal with terrorist and Muslim fundamentalist groups that the president claimed were exploiting religion for vested interests.

Two years ago, pressure from Muslim fundamentalists forced the Pakistan's president to backtrack on a promise to amend a law on blasphemy against Islam which is strongly criticized by Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan.

"Now the situation is different," Pervez said. "These groups have been banned and most of the leaders are behind bars. So there will be no protests this time."

The SES was first imposed in 1979 under the martial rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, initially for local elections, but in 1985 it was extended to provincial and national elections.

Under this system, which has been described as a form of "religious apartheid," ...

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