Christians hope Pakistan election result is start of better future

|PIC1|Christians are hoping that the election victory of assassinated Benazir Bhutto's party will move Pakistan towards democracy and greater religious freedom.

Former prime minister Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won the most seats in the National Assembly in Monday's election. Heavy losses for the Pakistan Muslim League, meanwhile, could see the end of President Pervez Musharraf's reign.

Christians in Pakistan have long yearned for equality in the predominantly Muslim country, suffering harsh discrimination daily in all areas of life, including education, finances and politics.

Their hopes that Bhutto, who was tutored by a Catholic nun, would lift them out of their second-class status were dealt a severe blow after her assassination last December, but with the PPP's success in the elections, hopes of a brighter future are being rekindled.

"Pray that the government that takes power will look out for the Christians, will protect their right to worship, will protect their right to change religions, will protect their right to conversion," said Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Christian persecution watchdog group Voice of the Martyrs, according to Mission Network News.

"I think we can pray for the believers there that they will continue to be a witness," he added.

The WCC central committee said in a statement that the outcome of the elections was "encouraging".

"We very much hope this shows a return to democratic governance in Pakistan," the statement added.

Persecution continues to make life extremely difficult for Christians in Pakistan. The blasphemy law is often manipulated to accuse innocent Christians and have them sentenced to jail with the motive of business profit or revenge. There are dozens of Christians currently in jail because of blasphemy laws that forbid anyone from defaming Islam.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged the State Department to add Pakistan to its list of "countries of particular concern".

"It's one of the most serious problem spots for religious freedom in the entire world," said Felice Gaer, former chairwoman of the commission and director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

"Discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the legislative status of people who belong to minorities," Gaer said.

Although the PPP won the most votes, it failed to secure a majority and is now considering a coalition with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, as well as an ethnic Pashtun party that has bumped Islamist parties from the leadership in the North West Frontier, a hotspot for militants.

[Michelle A Vu in the US contributed to this article]

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