Voting on their Knees

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The chairman of Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parities scored wins in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of President Pervez Musharraf - America's close ally in the war on terror.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, told AP Television News that "we accept the results with an open heart" and "will sit on opposition benches" in the new parliament."

Pakistan's opposition parties have won parliamentary elections, threatening President Pervez Musharraf's rule eight years after he seized power in a military coup, unofficial returns showed Tuesday.

The results could impact not only the international war on terror, but the fate of Christians in the Muslim dominated country, according to Todd Nettleton of The Voice of the Martyrs.

"There's a very real concern that the situation and the stability of the nation, as a whole, could degenerate into a war zone. That's a big issue for prayer among Christians around the world, because if there is no stability, that will affect the church in negative ways," he told Mission Network News.

Christians currently face severe opposition from militant Islamic groups. The war in Afghanistan intensified problems, with Pakistani Christians seen as being a part of an attack on Islam.

In some areas, the rule of Islamic law is already being pressed against Christians and many have suffered from the growth of radical Islam in recent weeks. The deaths of three Christians in the northern valley of Swat, where fanatics have enforced radical Islamic law since July, sent fear through the area's tiny Christian community.

Nettleton says because that could grow with a sympathetic government, believers are on their knees.

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

Final results were not expected before Tuesday evening, but the election's outcome appeared to be a stinging public verdict on Musharraf, whose popularity plummeted following his decisions late last year to impose emergency rule, purge the judiciary, jail political opponents and curtail press freedoms.

The party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was in the lead in Monday's parliamentary vote, with ex-premier Nawaz Sharif - who was toppled in Musharraf's 1999 coup and has emerged as his fiercest critic - running a close second.

The private Geo TV network said the two parties had so far won 139 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.

The pro-Musharraf ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, was trailing a distant third with 33 seats, the network said.

The government confirmed 24 election-related deaths over the past 36 hours. But the country was spared the type of Islamic militant violence that scarred the campaign - most notably the assassination of the charismatic opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.

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