Fischel Benkhald, born Faisal Benkhald in Karachi, became the first Pakistani citizen in decades to officially declare his Jewish identity to the state.
Benkhald’s mother is Jewish, but he was registered as Muslim due to his father’s religion. After being orphaned as a teenager, he was raised by a religious Muslim uncle. “I studied Islam in childhood, but I never practiced it as a religion,” Benkhald told The Express Tribune, a Pakistani English-language newspaper.
At age 29, he attempted to navigate the tricky bureaucratic channels of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in order to change his official religious status—which Pakistan denotes on government ID cards—from Muslim to Jew. But NADRA did not comply when Benkhald initially applied for the change in 2015. Wilson Chowdry, a Christian Pakistani ex-pat who took on Benkhald’s case and advocated for him in Pakistan and in Britain, told Fox News that NADRA “simply chose not to respond” to Benkhald’s inquiry. Seemingly because of Chowdry’s support, though, Benkhald received notice this week that he would be issued a new ID card. Chowdry called this move “groundbreaking.” According to The Express Tribune, “NADRA usually turns down such requests, especially from Muslims to any other faith, due to the sensitive religious atmosphere in the country.”
Pakistan is estimated to be between 95 and 98 percent Muslim, with Sunni Muslims composing the majority. That two to five percent of non-Muslims includes Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslim but are not considered as such by the Pakistani government, as well as Christians and Hindus. Although hundreds of Jews have apparently self-identified on national censuses, none are registered as Jews with NADRA or identified as such on their ID cards or passports.
Benkhald told the paper that he considers the timing fortuitous: With Passover approaching, he is finally able to freely and openly proclaim his religious identity. He is already using his unique status to carve out an online niche for himself. His Twitter handle is simply @Jew_Pakistani.
Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.