Pakistani Christians Hope for Improved Status After Election

Pakistan's political party, led by President Pervez Musharraf, admitted defeat Tuesday as early results from Monday's parliamentary election showed the ruling party's unpopularity among its citizens.

"We concede and congratulate the people who have won the elections," said Mushahid Syed Hussain, general secretary of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, to CNN.

Pakistan had been under military rule for over half of its 60-year history, eight years of which have been under Musharraf. Monday's election, the country's first general election in six years, was a step towards democracy.

Early results show the parties of two former prime ministers to dominate the election. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup, and the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December, has together won over half the parliamentary seats, according to unofficial tallies reported by Pakistan's GEO TV.

Unofficial tallies from 229 of the 268 National Assembly seats being contested showed Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party with 33 percent and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party with 27 percent, reported GEO TV, according to The Associated Press.

The ruling PML-Q was a distant third with 14 percent. It lost significant support nationally and internationally after Musharraf last year imposed emergency rule, fired Supreme Court justices, jailed political opponents and restricted press freedoms.

Sharif is calling on Musharraf to step down.

Pakistan's election attracted international attention, especially from the United States, because of Musharraf's ties with Washington as a key ally in the war against terror, and because of the recent assassination of pro-democracy and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Several U.S. congressmen – including Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) – are in Islamabad to oversee the voting process. Biden commented that the election results mean the United States can revise its Pakistan policy.

"This is an opportunity for us to move from a policy that has been focused on a personality to one based on an entire people," Biden said, adding that Washington should encourage more deeply rooted democracy in Pakistan, according to AP.

Christians in Pakistan also hope that the country will move towards democracy and practice greater religious freedom after the election. Recently, the tiny Christian community has faced increased persecution by growing numbers of Muslim extremists.

Christians also suffer daily under harsh discrimination in all areas of life, including education, finances and politics.

Arguably the most hated law cited by Christians is the blasphemy law, which is often manipulated to accuse innocent Christians and sentence them 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 U.S. 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.

Christians had hoped that Bhutto, who was tutored by a Catholic nun, would help them gain equality in society before her sudden death. With Bhutto's party gaining a significant number of parliamentary seats, it now remains to be seen if the status of Christians in Pakistani society will improve.

Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Christian persecution watchdog group Voice of the Martyrs, urged, "Pray for God's will in the elections. 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," according to Mission Network News.

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

Final results for Pakistan's general election are not expected until Tuesday evening.