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Updated: February 23, 2000 05:00 PM GMT
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Leaders of minority religions in Pakistan had a first meeting with the country´s chief executive, General Pervez Musharraf, who reiterated a pledge to uphold the rights of non-Muslims in the country.

A delegation including Archbishop Armando Trindade of Lahore, president of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of Pakistan, met with Musharraf at the Governor´s House in Lahore Feb. 18. Bishop Samuel Azariah of Raiwind, moderator of the Church of Pakistan, was also a member of the delegation.

During the meeting, Musharraf assured the Catholic, Protestant and Parsi leaders that their grievances would be redressed quickly.

Promising to give equal opportunities in nation building to religious minorities, he directed Derrick Cyprian, a Catholic and the federal minister for sports, culture and minorities´ affairs, to take necessary action.

According to members of the delegation, General Musharraf promised that he would abolish the separate electorate system in favor of a joint electorate, which would bring minorities into the national political mainstream.

Under the separate electorate system, members of the non-Muslim minorities vote only to fill seats reserved for their community as a whole. Muslims vote for Muslims to represent them through local geographic constituencies.

Meeting delegates also reported that Musharraf lauded Pakistani Christians´ contributions in education, health and other social services, and said that he believed in human dignity regardless of caste, creed or race.

During the meeting, Church of Pakistan Bishop John Malik of Lahore expressed hope that devolution of power to the grassroots level, one of the seven main goals Musharraf has set, will bring true democracy in the country.

Behram D. Avari, a Parsi businessman, and Meera Phalibus, former principal of Kanarid College in Lahore, were other members of the first delegation of minority leaders to meet with Musharraf. The general became chief executive after ousting former prime minister Nawaz Sharif Oct. 12 in a coup.

Some Christians, however, felt that the government headed by the former armed forces chief of staff should give more concrete commitments.

Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of the National Christian Action Forum, noted that there was "no mention in the press note issued by the government about the restoration of the joint electorate system and the return of (nationalized) schools."

The Catholic lay leader told UCA News that "the delegation should have been much tougher and demanded the return of the schools immediately."

Under a federal government policy, Punjab and Sindh provinces nationalized most Church and other private schools in 1972. Most of the nationalized schools in Sindh, but very few in Punjab and no colleges, have been returned.

Two days earlier in Lahore, 330 kilometers south of Islamabad, Punjab Governor Mohammad Safdar told a Christian delegation headed by Bishop-elect Andrew Francis of Multan that the local government is committed to protect the rights of all minorities, including Christians.

The retired general said policies are being devised to integrate Pakistani minorities into the mainstream. Safdar also said that Christians´ expression of solidarity with the people of Indian-held Kashmir on Feb. 5, Kashmir Day in Pakistan, had given impetus to the Kashmiri freedom struggle.

Bishop-elect Francis lauded the initial steps taken by Musharraf´s government to provide good governance and to maintain peace and order.

He assured the governor of Christians´ cooperation in such efforts and briefed him on problems faced by several poor Christian communities in Punjab, one being evictions among residents of a railway colony.

In December Christian and Muslim leaders and human rights advocates agreed during a two-day consultation in Islamabad on the need to devolve power to rid Pakistan of what they called an archaic and oppressive system of governance.

They also concurred on the need to revise the Pakistan Constitution to ensure a "genuine federation" where constituent units are guaranteed full autonomy and treated equally, and "the various ethnic cultural community´s rights and aspirations are duly respected and allowed their rightful play."


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