01/18/2005, 00.00
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Passports without religion cause rift

by Qaiser Felix
Islamic parties accuse the government of planning to secularise the nation.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) –Pakistani passports issued in 2004 have no column to specify the holder's religion, a change strongly opposed by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties for whom the omission amounts to a conspiracy. To counter the move, MMA plans protests and demonstrations.

The column had been introduced in Pakistani passports in 1980 by General Zia-ul-Haq in his drive to islamise the country.

MMA Senator Ghafoor Ahmed described the move as a conspiracy to turn the country into a secular state. Another MMA leader, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, said it was "an attempt to secularise Pakistan and strip it of its Islamic identity" adding that "we will never let them do this."

According to Mr Ahmed the US ambassador in Pakistan was actively involved in having the column removed from passports.

Former Prime Minister and president of the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League (PML) Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain also demanded that the religion column be reinstated.

Such reactions raised eyebrows throughout the country, leaving political observers scratching their heads as to reasons behind this reaction to General Musharraf's stated agenda of 'enlightened moderation'.

For the MMA, omitting religion would allow Ahmadis—an Islamic sect declared non-Muslim and heretical in Pakistan's 1973 constitution—to go on pilgrimage to Islam's holy city of Makkah.

Liberal politicians, religious minorities and human rights groups are opposed to forcing people to declare their religious beliefs, saying it was a source of conflict and intolerance.

Fr Bonnie Mendes, director of the Human Development Centre, told AsiaNews that "we are all equal before the law, according to article 25 of the constitution, and the passports of all citizens should be similar."

"The government should show courage and stick to its decisions to have no column of religion in the passports. It should not bow to the Pakistan Muslim League resolution to have the column of religion," he stressed.

Pakistan is the first country in South Asia and the 80th in the world that is issuing machine readable passports (MRPs) under supervision of the International Civil Aviation Organisation to introduce global standards for travel documents.

The government spent 50 million rupees to put in place a MRP system and printed 300,000 new MRPs, but has issued only more than 80,000 so far.

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