How Pakistan Turned Over A New Leaf In Time For Passover

How Pakistan Turned Over A New Leaf In Time For Passover
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The approaching festival of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage. But the festival will have special significance this year for one man in particular.

Fischel -- his chosen Yiddish name -- was born Faisal Benkhald in the Pakistani city of Karachi to a Jewish mother and Muslim father. The fourth of five children, he recited blessings over Shabbat candles, helped his mother bake challah bread every Friday and watched her prepare kosher dishes. Unlike his siblings, Benkhald felt a strong pull to his Jewish ancestry.

Raised by his strictly Muslim uncle after the death of his parents, Benkhald, 29, began campaigning to to change his religious status on his identity card -- an official requirement -- from Muslim to Jew within 2014.

His application to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) was denied in November 2015. Fishel's case was aired in the Jewish press and a House of Lords inquiry by the All Parliamentary Party Group for International Religious Freedom heard a submission by my organization, Harif, into the plight of Pakistan's Jews. At its peak, the community numbered up to 3,000 Jews, but almost all have fled to Israel, Britain or Canada. There is still a Christian community, but it has suffered violence and persecution. On the flimsiest of pretexts, Christians can fall foul of Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, leading to their arrest, imprisonment and even the death penalty. The country's constitution is based on Islam.

This week, after three years of struggle, Fischel Benkhald won his right to register officially as a Jew. Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, hailed Fischel's success as a victory: 'The obtaining of NADRA registration for Fischel as a Jew is groundbreaking. As a very ordinary man he has managed to remove an age-old discrimination.'

Fischel had asked Chowdhry to take on his case with the Pakistani government. 'Our initial inquiry led to very little progress: they simply chose not to respond,' says Chowdhry.

But the First Minister at the Pakistan High Commission in the UK began to make overtures to Chowdhry's group with a view to improving the situation for minorities in Pakistan.

Chowdhry told him about Fischel's case. The minister was very moved.

Islam allows non-Muslims to convert to Islam. It does not allow apostasy -- a Muslim to convert to other religions. Chowdhry explains: 'Although there is no apostasy law, cultural intolerance of converts means for those who choose to quit Islam, life will be full of danger.'

A previous test case involving a Christian MP representing minorities in Pakistan and harassed by political opponents, who claimed he was an apostate from Islam, failed to change the identity registration process.

In the UK Chowdhry's group had been called to help give evidence that no Sikh, required to carry a holy knife or Kirpaan, had ever used the weapon inappropriately.

It was imperative to prove that Fischel had not converted to Judaism from Islam. According to Jewish law, he is considered a Jew by birth, since the religion is passed through the maternal line.

Chowdhry is confident that Fischel's case 'would convince other Jews to come out of hiding and begin to unite behind a project to build a new synagogue.' The 2011 census had 900 Pakistanis registered as Jews.

However, that figure would seem wildly optimistic in view of the fact that the community ceased to exist in the 1970s and the last synagogue in Karachi was razed to the ground.

Already Fischel is planning to challenge the government to name the Karachi cemetery, the last remaining Jewish graveyard in Pakistan, as a heritage site. The British Pakistani Christian Association has offered to help him and is also willing to act as a conduit for donations. 'A Jewish Heritage site in Pakistan would be a great legacy and would remind Pakistan of their once more tolerant society,' says Wilson Chowdhry.

Fischel is yet to receive his identity card, but his message for Passover is clear.

“It feels like shackles have been removed from me and I feel a great sense of liberty now.”

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