One of Pakistan’s oldest discriminatory practices has been terminated thanks to Fishel Benkhald Pakistan’s last openly declaring Jew – with a little help from Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association.
Fishel Benkhald approached Mr Chowdhry about a year ago after he was having difficulties with altering his recorded faith within his Identity documents.
Fishel Benkhald as he now names himself is a man who was born of a Jewish mother and Muslim father. Fishel (chosen Yiddish name) was born Faisal Benkald in Karachi in 1987 and is the fourth of five children.
Fishel’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 Fishel to experience a freedom to practice and learn Judaism in a manner that would have been limited in Pakistan. Sadly for Fishel his parents died when he was only 13 and he was forced to live with his more staunchly Islamic uncle.
Fishel now finds himself estranged from two of his siblings and the other two have rejected their Jewish heritage.
He began a campaign for his name to be altered on the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) about two years ago and called for them change his official religious status from Muslim to Jew. An initial application was declined sometime near November 2015
Mr Chowdhry at the time reported the matter during evidence hearing sessions led by the All Parliamentary Party Group for International Religious Freedom (APPGIRF), at the UK Houses of Parliament (click here).
However, although the issue of Mr Benkhald’s ID card was mentioned in the final report no further action or support was provided by the APPGIRF.
Fishel Benkhald had been advised that it would be impossible for him to change his faith on his ID cards. However he reapplied for the change late in 2016. However, due to an unexplained delay without response he again approached Wilson Chowdhry for some assistance.
Mr Chowdhry organised a meeting with the First Minister at the Pakistani High Commission in London on 10th January 2017 and raised concerns about both Fishels ID card and a UK Citizen’s NICOP application. The First Minister was pleasant and willing to help and sought further details of Fishel’s application tracking number.
After a few email exchanges it was agreed that The First Minister would raise a concern with the Interior Ministry about Fischel’s applications. He recognized that no law or guideline existed preventing the change in faith on identity documents and explained that the decisions were being made by senior executives at the NADRA department.
One week Later Fishel emailed Mr Chowdhry explaining that his application had been taken up to Interior Ministry level. We immediately knew this was good news as the First Minister at the High Commissioner, informed us that some progress was being made. Even then to make sure of a good result the First Minister told us he would again raise the issue via the High Commissioner at a higher level.
Yesterday we received confirmation from Fishel Benkhald that he has been given the green light for his ID card, though it has not yet been produced for him. This will make Fishel the first registered Jewish Citizen in Pakistan for decades.
Fishel 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 a synagogue in the middle of the city 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 Fishel’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 here).Despite the figures until now no passport holder in Pakistan is recognized as being of the Jewish faith. Pakistan’s highly discriminatory practice of labeling of citizens in this manner 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. Fishel 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.
“I am pleased with this result which comes just before the Jewish celebration of the Passover, when the Torah tells us Jews escaped from Egypt. It feels like shackles have been removed from me and I feel a great sense of liberty now.
“I failed in a campaign to save the Synagogue in Karachi but I do not think the previous government had any passion for this.
“I hope the current government who have emancipated me through their decsions will be more inclined to preserving an important part of Pakistan’s wonderful and vibrant history.”
Wilson Chowdhry, Chowdhry Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said:
“I am ever so pleased for Fishel who has campaigned hard and alone for most of the time. Seeking the freedoms that we enjoy in the west in the oppressive climate of Pakistan.
“The incumbent Government are proving to be more willing to assist minorities then any in Pakistan’s history. Only recently they also helped BPCA with a project to bring clean, fresh water to some of Pakistan’s most deprived Christian communities (click here).
“This change in mindset will benefit Pakistan greatly as it will help build stronger more enriched communities, who can work together to develop a wonderful nation.
“Moreover the inclusion of minorities in the advancement of Pakistan, will prove their value to the nation which will help eradicate the division and schism that has caused an increase in violence and fear.”
This is not the first time Mr Chowdhry has helped removed a discriminatory practice regarding passports. In 2010 Mr Chowdhry received an award from the British Sikh Council, after he successfully spearheaded a campaign to remove a discriminatory practice that prevented Sikhs obtaining a 24 hour passport in the UK. Read more (click here)
In the Same year he also won a London Peace Award form then Mayor of London Boris Johnson (click here).