Lonely battle to return shul to Pakistan

By Bernard Josephs, January 10, 2014
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A campaign to persuade Pakistani authorities to permit the re-establishment of a synagogue and the refurbishment of a derelict Jewish cemetery in Karachi has been launched by a young member of the country’s dwindling and beleaguered Jewish community.

Virulent antisemitism fuelled by widespread hostility towards Israel and Islamic fundamentalism has seen an exodus of nearly all Jews from the country, most of them seeking refuge in Israel, India and the West.

However, Fishel Bhenkhald’s Jewish maternal grandparents, who immigrated from Iran during the British Raj, decided to remain. Fearing for the safety of their child (Mr Bhenkhald’s mother), they registered her as a Muslim.

Now 27, Mr Bhenkhald, whose father was a humanist-minded Muslim, has rediscovered his Jewish roots and is devoting himself to “claiming Jewish rights in Pakistan”.

He has petitioned Pakistani courts for legal approval to have a shul built and is asking for support for his plan to work on the Jewish cemetery in Karachi.

The city’s former synagogue, Magen Shalom, was demolished in 1988, during the Islamist dictatorship of Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. It was replaced by a shopping and residential plaza.

“Call me a dreamer,” Mr Bhenkhald said, “but if my drive to clean the Jewish graves goes on as intended it could result in cutting through the red-tape of city government to get legal permission to build a small synagogue.”

He will clean the graves “first with my own hands, equipped with nothing but a spade and elbow grease. I am also using Twitter to ask for volunteers in Pakistan to help me.” Despite hostility in the press and from the authorities, he continues to publicly advocate a relationship between Pakistan and Israel.

He also faces problems in changing his status as a Muslim to that of a Jew.

“Pakistani law does not allow its citizens who are registered as Muslims to change their religious status. To do so is punishable under Sharia law,” said Mr Bhenkhald.

Last updated: 3:45pm, January 10 2014