ucanews.com reporter, Islamabad
Updated: August 18, 2015 10:14 PM GMT
Pakistani minority Christians attend a Christmas mass at a Cathedral Church in Lahore last year. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
Pakistan's religious minorities are hailing what they see as a rare victory after the country's top court announced a landmark ruling earlier this month on the participation of minority groups in elections.
The court ruled that non-Muslim representatives allotted for reserved seats should be selected through secret ballots conducted among minority groups themselves and not from party lists drawn up through a proportional representation system.
Minorities are currently allowed 10 reserved seats in the national parliament.
The ruling followed a challenge by Julius Salik, founder of the World Minority Alliance party and a former Christian minister, to constitutional amendments made in 2010 concerning seats reserved for minorities.
They claimed minorities were not being properly represented through party lists.
Lawmakers supposedly there to represent minorities were being picked by the major parties — the majority of whose members are Muslim — the complainants said.
Religious minorities feel they have no ability to participate in elections because there is in fact no election at all, they told the court.
The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that this method does not conform to any of the principles of democracy which would allow the minorities to choose their own representatives.
"Additional seats for minorities are not a matter of grace and benevolence of political parties but are constitutional requirements so that the legitimate interests of the minorities are provided for," the court said.
"It would be equally tragic if minorities come to regard themselves … as second-class citizens or the 'children of a lesser god', forever to remain subservient to the majority's goodwill and unrepresented by their own chosen representatives,” it added.
Michael Javed, a former Christian lawmaker, hailed the verdict as historic and said the ruling has come as a big relief for increasingly frustrated minorities.
“No Christian, Hindu or any other minority member can become member of parliament unless he offers bribes under the garb of party funding and even then there is no assurance that he would get the promised seat,” he lamented.
Javed said many disgruntled Christian leaders have left Pakistan after being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
The principle complainant in the case, Julius Salik, is now based in the United States, he said.
Cecil Chaudhry, executive director of the Pakistani bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace, hailed the verdict, but said it did not go far enough.
He called for a fresh way to elect minority representatives.
"For a minority representative, the whole of Pakistan is the constituency and he or she has to travel virtually everywhere to canvass voters," Chaudhry said. "This is simply impossible. There has to be a better way for minorities to elect their representatives."
Amarnath Motumal, vice chairman of the Sindh branch of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, praised the Supreme Court for meeting the "legitimate demands of minorities" against a discriminatory electoral system.
“The constitution ruled out any possibility of people from the scheduled caste to take part in elections. There is not a single representative for people from the scheduled castes in any assembly,” he said.
“If the government is serious about the rights of minorities, it must introduce a new bill to reserve one seat each in areas that have significant numbers of Christians or Hindus. For these reserved seats, even Muslims can vote," he said.
“This will not only integrate the minorities, it will promote interfaith harmony,” he added.
Calls for an increase in reserved seats
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance, said the next big challenge for minorities is to increase their number of seats.
A bill seeking to increase minority seats from 10 to 16 was deferred in May this year and non-Muslim members were told to wait until the completion of a national census, which is scheduled to begin in March 2016.
“There should be at least 18 reserved seats for minorities, who make up around 5 percent of the predominantly Muslim population,” Chaudhry said.
“Minorities are faced with momentous challenges, but we will continue our struggle for a secular and democratic Pakistan in line with the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation," he said.