Pakistan Grants Its ‘Last Jew’ Permission to Practice Judaism
The Ministry of Interior has recently given the green light in response to Benkhald’s application. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Jew.Pakistani">Fishel Benkhald</a>)
The Ministry of Interior has recently given the green light in response to Benkhald’s application. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Fishel Benkhald)

Pakistan Grants Its ‘Last Jew’ Permission to Practice Judaism

Pakistan has allowed a 29-year-old Jewish activist Fishel Benkhald to change his religion from Islam to Judaism, an unusual move by authorities in the Muslim-majority country.

In normal circumstances, it would have been a normal practice to let Benkhald choose a religion of his choice to fill in the forms to get a national identity card and passport.

But it was a task for Benkhald as he was registered as a Muslim, and it could be interpreted as apostasy, which is punished with death according to Pakistan’s Islamic law.

The Ministry of Interior has recently given the green light in response to Benkhald's application, where he had sought 'conversion/correction' of his religion from Islam to Judaism, in his national identity documents, The Express Tribune reported.

Benkhald’s Mother Secretely Practised Her Judaic Faith

Benkhald’s struggle to retain his Judaic identity began as early as 2014, according to a report in The Times of Israel.

Benkhald expresses solidarity with Israel in a 2014 picture. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Jew.Pakistani">Fishel Benkhald</a>)
Benkhald expresses solidarity with Israel in a 2014 picture. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Fishel Benkhald)

In the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Benkhald is registered as a Muslim. Faisal, as he is known in his current identity documents, was born to a Muslim father and a Jewish mother in Karachi in 1987. He was registered as a Muslim due to his father's religion.

According to an open letter that Benkhald wrote for The Huffington Post, his mother hailed from a Persian Jewish family. Even though she was registered as a Muslim, she continued to secretly practice her Judaic faith throughout her life.

The international media has often dubbed him as the 'The Last Jew in Pakistan' in the past.

Fishel Benkhald holding a placard during a vigil in Karachi for victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Jew.Pakistani">Fishel Benkhald</a>)
Fishel Benkhald holding a placard during a vigil in Karachi for victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Fishel Benkhald)

He also claims that he has faced the ire of some Muslim groups in Pakistan for speaking out for the non-Muslims in the country.

The Appeal Made to the Government

In 2016, he made an appeal to the NADRA to allow him to return to the religion of his choice, Judaism, by correcting it in a smart ID card he had applied for last year.

NADRA, which was in a fix over the issue, had asked for the interior ministry's opinion to correct the religion of a former Muslim, a ministry source was quoted as saying by the daily.

In its response, the ministry said in writing, saying “the applicant may be allowed to practice religion of (his) choosing and preference”.

NADRA usually turns down such requests, especially from Muslims to any other faith, due to the sensitive religious atmosphere in the country. Although the interior ministry has given the green signal, NADRA has yet to issue a smart card after correcting Benkhald's religion.

A document available with daily suggests that correspondence between the Ministry of Interior and NADRA over the issue had taken place in February-March 2017.

Benkhald thanked the authorities, especially the interior ministry and NADRA, for granting him the right to profess religion of his choice, the report said.

‘This is a Positive Development’

Describing himself as a “Pakistani Jew fighting for Jewish and minority rights recognition as equal citizens in Pakistan,” in his Twitter bio, Benkhald said

I studied Islam in childhood. But I never practiced it as a religion.

He added that he considers this a positive development in his case as a treat from Pakistani authorities for upcoming Passover. Passover is a religious event of the Jews which commemorates their liberation from Egyptian slavery celebrated in March-April.

Pakistani Jews, a few in numbers, usually hide their identity from public. According to a top NADRA official, their identity details, such as house addresses, in the authority's records are treated as top secret.

There are some 745 registered Jew families in Pakistan, the official said.

Benkhald said that recently, he has mentioned himself as a Jew in the religion column during the ongoing census in Pakistan. Both the mother and father of Benkhald died in 1996 and 1998, respectively.

"First milestone has been achieved," said Benkhald, who has also been campaigning to preserve an old Jewish cemetery in Karachi.

(With inputs from PTI.)

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