In Pakistan, the appointment of a religious leader as the head of the parliamentary opposition has come under strong criticism from secular parties. The appointment has ended nearly 17 months without a formal opposition leader.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a cleric-politician, was named to lead the parliamentary opposition.

The speaker of the National Assembly, Chaudhry Amir Hussain, nominated the Islamic leader for the job, saying he enjoys maximum support among the opposition lawmakers. The pro-military government has supported the decision.

But Mr. Rehman's appointment has outraged a group of liberal and secular political parties in the parliament known as Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, the ARD. A lawmaker from the group, Raza Rabbani, says the majority of the opposition lawmakers supported the Alliance nominee, but the speaker of the assembly ignored rules and tradition in the appointment.

He says the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy controls 78 of the National Assembly's 342 seats while the religious coalition controls 76 of them. Mr. Rabbani says the appointment of a hard-line Islamic leader as head of the opposition may encourage extremist forces in Pakistan.

?A minority leader who does not command the majority of the members of the opposition in the National Assembly has been, out of turn, out of step, named as the leader of the opposition,? Mr. Rabbani said. ?We believe that this is an attempt to marginalize the liberal and democratic forces inside and outside parliament.?

Mr. Rehman is a senior leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of six Islamic parties opposed to Pakistan's cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The group also has staged a number of anti-U.S. rallies to protest the war in Iraq. But some observers say that Mr. Rehman has toned down his opposition to both the pro-military government of President Pervez Musharraf and his alliance with the United States.

On Monday, President Musharraf reiterated that he will not tolerate extremism in Pakistani politics. He was addressing a gathering of students in Islamabad.

?Pakistan cannot be lead by religious fanatics because such elements have destroyed our Islamic values of tolerance,? he said. Earlier this year, Mr. Reheman's religious alliance supported a package of constitutional amendments to allow Mr. Musharraf to stay in office until 2007.

Alliance for Restoration of Democracy officials say the government secretly promised Mr. Rehman's appointment as opposition leader in exchange for backing the president.

The appointment was made 17 months after Pakistan's general election. A stalemate over Mr. Musharraf's right to the presidency delayed the naming of a parliamentary opposition leader.

President Musharraf came to power in a bloodless 1999 coup.