LAHORE, Pakistan, JAN. 18, 2002 ( Pakistan has gone back to a joint electorate system that will could mark the end of a procedure that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Minorities throughout the country welcomed the government´s decision to abolish the separate electorate system, which marginalized Christians and other minorities. The decision will be applied starting in the elections next October.

In fact, the Musharraf government has only restored a system used up to 1973. The decision was made public Wednesday by the chairman of the National Reconstruction Bureau.

Other measures include increase in the number of seats of Parliament up to 350, reserving 60 seats for women and 25 for technocrats. National Assembly candidates are required to have bachelor´s degrees.

Among Pakistani Catholics there is great satisfaction. Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, head of the bishops´ Commission for Justice and Peace, said in a statement that the "decision will reinforce the country´s democracy."

Peter Jakob, secretary of the same commission, told the Vatican agency Fides: "This is a major step toward liberating Pakistan from prejudices and retrogression. Without this unjust mode of electorate, based on religious apartheid, society in Pakistan gains new life and the nation will emerge with dignity and progress."

Yasoob Ali Gogar, coordinator and Lahore provincial adviser to the Ministry of Minority Affairs, said: "The separate electorate system was the root cause of the problems for minorities." Ali Dogar is also a member of the Minorities Advisory Council of Lahore, which includes Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais and Parses.

Majority circles also welcomed the decision. Observers say the change will boost the country´s image, ruined by recent episodes of Muslim fundamentalism.

The decision is part of a plan to put an end to intolerance in society and bring about social harmony. The plan includes a reform of the Koran schools that produced the Taliban, with the introduction of English, mathematics and computer studies.

Pakistani Christians had long protested the unfair electorate system, now abolished. In 2001 numerous protests were organized by civil society organizations. In 2000-2001 a campaign was launched and succeeded in boycotting the elections.

The first three general elections in Pakistan, 1954, 1970 and 1977, were held under joint electorate, but General Zia-ul-Haq brought in the separate electorate system in the 1985 elections for his vested interests.

Pakistan´s population of 140 million is 97% Muslim and 1.6% Christian.