02/10/2009, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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No seats for religious minorities in Islamabad senate

by Qaiser Felix
On March 4, voting will be held for the renewal of the country's upper house. Islamabad has repeatedly promised a law to guarantee the rights of non-Muslims. According to the government, the conditions are not right, and the discussion has been pushed back to 2012. Activists are afraid of new episodes of marginalization.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - In the elections for the renewal of the senate, scheduled for March 4, there will be no seats reserved for religious minorities in the country. The Pakistani government has made the decision despite repeated reassurances on the part of representatives of the Pakistan People's Party. Human rights activists are concerned because they fear new episodes of political marginalization and religious persecution toward non-Muslims.

On December 16, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and other ministers of the coalition government had promised five seats for minorities in the senate. According to representatives for the minorities, the question has never been addressed in a serious manner, and the law has remained a superficial issue. They claim that conditions are not right to guarantee representation for religious minorities in the upper house before 2012.

Mehboob Sada, director of the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi, issues an appeal through AsiaNews: "All the religious minorities in the country should unite and make their voices heard on such an important question." Criticism is also coming from the Sikh and Hindu minorities in Pakistan. Sardar Bishan Singh, former president of the Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee, says that "religious minorities feel isolated because the political system has not matured enough to maintain a secular stance for representation in the legislature, irrespective of caste, colour or creed." Hari Motwani, general secretary of the Pakistan Hindu Council, adds that legislation protecting minorities "would project a positive image of the country abroad."

The Pakistani senate is composed of 100 seats, 14 of which are assigned to the candidates of the four provinces into which the country is subdivided, together with four women and four technocrats; eight others are given to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the last four go to the district of Islamabad.

Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti says that a proposed law for guaranteeing representation for minorities will be presented in the next few days to the National Assembly. The Catholic parliamentarian had drafted a norm to protect minority interests last April 28, but the proposal had no practical follow-up.

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