Pakistan, where many religious minority groups face persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority, has allowed a 29-year-old dubbed the “last Jew” in the country to convert from Islam to Judaism.
“I studied Islam in childhood. But I never practiced it as a religion,” declared Fishel Benkhald from the city of Karachi, reports the Express Tribune.
Benkhald had long been registered as a Muslim, but Pakistan’s interior ministry has reportedly allowed him to change religions.
“The applicant may be allowed to practice [the] religion of [his] choosing and preference,” decided the ministry after Benkhald urged the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to allow him to identify as a Jew in his national identity documents, reports the Express Tribune.
However, the latest U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom notes that it is Pakistan’s policy “not to allow citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, to travel to Israel.”
Still, the Pakistani government acquiesced in an unusual move and allowed Benkhald’s conversion request.
The Press Trust of Indian (PTI) concedes, “Although the interior ministry has given the green signal, NADRA has yet to issue a smart card after correcting Benkhald’s religion.”
In Pakistan, the government still officially considers Benkhald a Muslim.
“Faisal, as he is known in his current identity documents, was born to a Muslim father and a Jewish mother in Karachi in 1987. He was registered as a Muslim due to his father’s religion,” mentions PTI.
Under “normal circumstances,” the Muslim-registered Karachi native would have been deemed an apostate had he identified himself as a Jew, adds the Indian news outlet.
The international media has labeled Benkhald the “last Jew in Pakistan.”
Nonetheless, an unnamed Pakistani official from NADRA, which keeps records of the population, is quoted by the Express Tribune as saying that a tiny Jewish community has managed to survive persecution in the predominantly Muslim country by maintaining a low profile.
Benkhald’s native Karachi was once home to the largest concentration of Jews in Pakistan — nearly 2,500 at the beginning of the twentieth century, reports the Jewish Virtual Library, a division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
However, the small Jewish community in Pakistan has nearly met the same fate of its counterparts in neighboring Muslim-majority countries who were completely wiped out by Islamic extremists.
“Pakistan’s hostility toward Israel and Zionism has not waned,” points out the virtual library. “The increasing influence of extreme Islamists have further undermined the security of the Jewish community.”
The organization reveals that a tiny Jewish community of about 200 people still lives in Pakistan.
Citing the top Islamabad official from NADRA, the Express Tribune reports that the identity details of the Jews in Pakistan “are treated as top secret.”
The Pakistani official reportedly placed the number of “registered Jew families” in Pakistan at 745.
“Some Jewish families do remain, but they prefer to pass themselves off as Parsis [followers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion] due to the intolerance for Jews in Muslim Pakistan,” mentions the Jewish Virtual Library.
Echoing the organization, the U.S. State Department notes that religious minorities, particularly Christians and Jews, continue face discrimination and persecution in Pakistan.
“According to reports from the Jinnah Institute and other monitoring organizations, some public school textbooks continued to include derogatory statements about minority religious groups, including Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Christians. The monitoring groups said the teaching of religious intolerance remained widespread,” reported the State Department in 2015.
Seemingly acknowledging the existence of the Karachi native who was recently allowed to convert to Judaism, the State Department also reported, “A Pakistani Jewish activist in Karachi has received some media coverage, but most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated.”
As a show of Muslim solidarity with Arab states, Pakistan does not recognize the state of Israel and often joins Arab-initiated moves against the Jewish country in the United Nations.
“The founding of an Islamic state [Pakistan] immediately prior to the establishment of the State of Israel created a rising feeling of insecurity within the Pakistani Jewish community… By 1968, the number of Jews in Pakistan had decreased to 250, almost all of whom were concentrated in Karachi, where there was one synagogue, a welfare organization, and a recreational organization,” reports the Jewish Virtual Library.