There are occasions when a simple act provides tremendous clarity about a much larger situation. Such an event took place last week in Pakistan, a country of approximately 200 million that has had a history of religious freedom violations.
According to our State Department, “[t]he [Pakistani] constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam.” In fact, the constitution establishes a “Federal Shariat Court” whose Muslim judges “examine and decide whether any law or provision is ‘repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.’” Additionally, Pakistan has draconian “blasphemy” laws that are used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities on fabricated charges. Such laws obviously make free discussion of religious thought about Islam virtually impossible.
Ninety-five percent of Pakistan is Muslim (70 percent Sunni, 25 percent Shia). The remaining five percent is made up of Hindus, Christians, Parsis / Zoroastrians, Bahais, Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalasha, Kihals, and Jains. Apparently, there are too few Jews to note statistically. Citizens of Pakistan must register their religious affiliation with the government.
According to a recent report in the Jerusalem Post, a 29-year-old Pakistani man named Fischel Benkald was informed last week that as he had requested, “the religious status in his National Database and Registration Authority profile [would] be changed from Muslim to Jew…” Mr. Benkald is the first Pakistani citizen to be permitted to change his religious status from Muslim to Jew since the 1980s.
Benkald’s birth name was Faisal, and he was raised in Karachi by a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. He was also allowed to assume a Yiddish first name, “Fischel.” The change in religious affiliation was requested three years ago, and might very well have been denied without intervention from forces outside Pakistan. Wilson Chowdry, the chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, plead Benkald’s case with the Pakistani High Commission in London (i.e., the Pakistani embassy to the United Kingdom in London).
The national identity card is critical to all aspects of life for Pakistanis seeking to interact with their government. According to the Post, it “contains one’s name, date of birth, photo, a thumbprint and religion.”
The lack of religious freedom for anyone but Muslims is extreme in Pakistan. Christians are persecuted, but Jews historically received even worse treatment. Anti-Semitism caused Jews to flee the nation after the Israeli War for Independence and that nation’s founding in 1948. It is believed that there were over a thousand Jews in Karachi seventy years ago. Now there are virtually none. Mr. Chowdry told the Post that “hundreds of Jews are now living secretly in Pakistan.”
Apparently, Mr. Benkald did not assert in his application that an outright religious conversion from Islam had taken place. In effect, he claimed that he was in a distinct, exceptional category: “Benkald argue[d] that he never left Islam because he was born to a Jewish mother and therefore ha[d] always been Jewish.” This is true as Jews would define the matter. For whatever reason, the authorities approved his application, but his troubles are far from over.
The Post noted a Fox News story that said “a 2010 Pew survey found that 76 percent of Pakistanis advocate the death penalty for leaving Islam.” Hopefully, he will be left in peace or somehow be able to seek refuge in Israel. That said, a country in which religious conversion holds a significant probability of death or injury is not a country that allows any appreciable religious liberty regardless of any constitutional rhetoric to the contrary.
In any case, one has to greatly admire Mr. Benkald’s amazing bravery while praying for his safety. Western nations who cherish religious freedom, as well as Israel, should keep an eye out for him and his family.