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Change of faith request highlights discrimination against 'apostates' in Pakistan


Fishel Benkhald met with BPCA officer Ambar Saroya in Lahore

Pakistan's secret apostasy laws discriminate against their last remaining Jew and the UK's most famous apostate.

Much has been said about India's apostasy laws in recent years especially under the current Modi regime which is progressing with plans to introduce an 'Anti-conversion law', which will make it impossible to legally change faith in India. There are proposals being pushed for reconversion rights (like "ghar vapsi"). The leaders of this lobby claim that everyone living in India had ancestors who were once Hindus and had been "forcibly converted." Their ambition is to reconvert the current non-Hindus to Hinduism in a nation which is exhibiting its strongest sense of Hindu Nationalism for centuries.

For decades India has maintained laws that make apostasy grounds for divorce within the Hindu Marriage Act 1955. Although it has to be enacted by a spouse the laws are clearly very discriminatory.

Such laws are an obvious infringement of human rights in particular Article 18 of 'The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which states:

'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'

Pakistan as a nation has managed to avoid international scrutiny on apostasy practices because ostensibly their laws are not discriminatory in this fashion. After all, though scripted protections against blasphemy focus on protection of Islam the laws themselves are said to protect people of all faith. Moreover 50% of all blasphemy cases are enacted against Muslims though it should be understood that 100% of blasphemy cases are enacted by Muslims.

In recent months however, BPCA have been alarmed by failures by the Government to resolve grave highlighted apostasy discriminatory practice that was causing hurt, financial loss and obviously flaunted the vaunted international freedoms of Article 18 - for which Pakistan is a signatory.  

The bias emerged through the innocuous process of applying for a passport and 'National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis' (NICOP) card by two men who have bravely openly declared new faith designations despite the threat of death and persecution that such honesty inherently illicits when leaving Islam..

The first example is Fischel Benkald as he now names himself a man who was born of a Jewish mother and Muslim father. Fischel (chosen Yiddish name) was born Faisal Benkald in Karachi in 1987 and is the fourth of five children. He is now campaigning for his name to be altered on the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and for them change his official religious status from Muslim to Jew. This would make him the first Jewish Pakistani passport-holder in decades. However he was being met with significant opposition to this change.

Fischel's fondest memories are of his mother cooking fresh Challah (unleavened bread) every Friday, or reciting blessings over Shabbat Candles as she ushered in the Sabbath.

At a young age he found himself at odds with his siblings feeling more passion for his Jewish heritage then they ever exhibited by them. His mother always prepared Kosher food for him whilst she was alive as the two of them retained their Jewish identity.

His father was an engineer and often worked abroad in Africa enabling Fischel to experience a freedom to practice and learn Judaism in a manner that would have been limited in Pakistan. Sadly for Fischel his parents died at the age of 13 and he was forced to live with his more staunchly Islamic uncle.

Fischel now finds himself estranged from two of his siblings and the other two have rejected their Jewish heritage.

Fischel is all that remains of a small but thriving Jewish Community that once had their own synagogue, graveyard and many businesses in Karachi, that once numbered an estimated 3000 people. Fishel's mother told him that his maternal grandparents traveled to Pakistan from Iraq with a large number of Bene Muslim migrants.

The majority of the Jews in Karachi left for India and Israel in 1948 when the synagogue became a centrepoint for demonstrations and violence during Israel's, war for independence. Those who remained changed their names to more Muslim ones for their protection. So Fischel's dilemma in reality is not one in isolation. In fact during the general elections in 2013, it was reported in dawn newspapers that 809 adult Jews were enrolled as voters. The number of Jewish women voters was 427 against 382 men in the community (click here). By 2017, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan around 900 Jews were registered as voters in the country (click
Despite the figures no passport holder in Pakistan is recognized as being of the Jewish faith, despite Pakistan continuing with a highly discriminatory practice of labeling of citizens in this manner. A process that has often been blamed for the easy targeting and duress applied to minorities.

In 1988 despite international condemnation the Jewish synagogue was torn down for the building of a shopping mall, ignoring calls for it to be preserved as a heritage legacy. The contractors saved thousands of pounds when many extremists demolished the building by hand so intense was their hatred for anything Jewish. Fischel has been calling for the Jewish graveyard to be cleaned and preserved for heritage and now spends most of his time outside of Pakistan, working like his father did as an engineer. He hopes one day to create more empathy for Pakistan's Jewish community and heritage.

The second example is that of Nissar Hussain an apostate from Islam to Christianity who has suffered the most severe persecution of any apostate on our shores. Not only has an arson attempt tried to rid Nissar and his family of their lives but he was also beaten so badly by two men with pick-axe handles in November 2015, that he spent 14 days in hospital. In November 2016 Nissar was forced to leave his Bradford home with his family after the threat on his life meant that Police could no longer protect him. When collecting a few boxes while moving home he had to be escorted by armed police in several vehicles an event that was caught by ITV news (click here).

In November 2015 Nissar Hussain was brutally beaten by Muslim thugs with pickaxes for being a convert to Christianity.  He spent 2 weeks in hospital

Nissar and his family applied for a renewal of their NICOP cards last year after a relative of Nissar's wife Kubra became ill. After a long period of delay British Pakistani Christian Association were asked to intervene on their behalf and were asked to contact the Pakistan High Commission

An officer at the High Commission assured BPCA that the matter was being investigated. However a month later no solution was being offered. After a meeting at the High Commission the officer confirmed that confusion lay over a grey area within existing protocols that did not stipulate how a change of faith should be administered. It was posited that inherent bias was being applied by chief officers but the High Commission agreed to seek reform through appropriate diplomatic channels and stated that they would send a high level request for a review. The officer asked BPCA to inform Mr Hussain that they were doing all to resolve his issue and sought some time for the bureaucratic process to work. BPCA were also informed that Mr Hussain could apply for a tourist visa for 3 months that would enable members of his family to visit Pakistan as that would not require any faith labeling.

Loathe to pay further fees to the Pakistan Embassy after having paid 'fairly exorbitant fees already', Mr Hussain asked BPCA to seek a waiver for the cost of the visa fees in lieu of his family's pending NICOP applications. Despite several attempts to gain sympathy for their position especially considering Mr Hussain's inability to work due to post-traumatic stress, the Embassy have thus far refused.

Cases such as these are not rare or new. A previous high profile case involved a Christian MP in Pakistan's Punjab province.

Political opponents of Rana Asif Mahmood a Christian sought his disqualification from the Punjab Provincial Assembly seat reserved for minorities, on grounds that the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) identified him as a Muslim.

Though Mr Mahmood contested that he had been mistaken as a Muslim because of his Islamic sounding name and had always been Chrstian, NADRA refused to correct the error. The clerical error cost Mr Mahmood his cabinet seat and prevented him proposing the 2012-2013 budget.

Although we have been advised no law prohibits Muslims from changing their religion column on their Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC), NADRA practice only allows non-Muslims converting to Islam to undergo the change in status.

In Mr Mahmood's case he only discovered the fault still existed when his son applied for a CNIC.  His son was refused the option of submitting Christian as his faith on the basis that records showed his father to be a Muslim.

Opponents of Mr Mahmood filed a petition seeking his removal from a political seat reserved for minorities based on his change of faith. After an assertive and very emotional plea on the floor of the Punjab Assembly in which he clarified that he was born a Christian and asked the opposition to stop propaganda that would incite extremists to kill him, they finally dropped their malicious attempts to discredit him.

Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the BPCA, said:

"This discriminatory practice highlights the inability for many Muslims to accept that people will choose to quit Islam.  It is an open denial of the rights of someone to express their choice of faith openly and freely.

"Both Nissar and Fishel have our full support and we are challenging the UK High Commission to challenge the practice with the Interior Ministry, we believe this practice is one that paints a poor image of Pakistan and deserves some priority.

"If Pakistan is honest in their attempts to be seen as an open democratic nation they must immediately change this practice that exposes higher tier discrimination."

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