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," 10 seats out of 217 at the National Assembly were reserved for religious minorities—four for Christians, four for Hindus and two for people of other religions. The other 207 seats were reserved for Muslims.

The decision to scrap the SES was welcomed by Christian leaders.

Archbishop Simeon Pereira, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, said, "Finally, we are now feeling like equal citizens in this country."

In a statement, the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the bishops' conference said that the initiative "sets a direction for the nation towards human dignity, progress and prosperity."

Bishop S. K. Dass, moderator of the Church of Pakistan, said that the abolition of the SES, along with other recent measures by the government of President Pervez Musharraf, had come as a "pleasant surprise" to the Christian community.

About 3 million of Pakistan's population of 140 million are Christian; approximately 97 percent of the nation is Muslim.

Related Elsewhere

Related articles include:

Pakistani women seek more poll reforms — BBC (Jan. 17, 2001)
Pakistan scraps religious voting laws — BBC (Jan. 16, 2001)
Musharraf accepts non-Muslim community's demand in new electoral rules — AFP (Jan. 16, 2001)
Pakistan Makes Electoral Reforms — Associated Press (Jan. 16, 2001)

Previous related Christianity Today articles include:

Pakistani Christians Fight Against 'Apartheid' in Election System | Under rule, citizens cannot vote for candidates outside their own religious affiliation. (August 3, 2001)
Pakistan's Christians Demand End to 'Religious Apartheid' at Polls | Election system allows religious minorities to vote only for candidates of their own faith. (Sept. 18, 2000)

For more coverage of Pakistan, see Christianity Today's World Report and Yahoo full coverage.

Pakistan's blasphemy law led to a death sentence for Christian Ayub Masih, who has been imprisoned for 5 years.

In October, BBC analyzed Pakistan's Christian minority.

Visit the Islamic Government of Pakistan's official site.

Read the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.