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Pakistan Debates Whether To Specify Religion in Passports  - 2005-01-07

Pakistan's government is under fire from religious groups for issuing new passports that do not specify the holder's religion.

The controversy erupted in October, when the Pakistani government started issuing new machine-readable passports without the traditional space for the holder's religion.

Previously, Pakistani citizens were required to state their religion when applying for a passport, and this was recorded on the document.

Government ministers say the change brings the new passports into line with international standards.

But religious groups have condemned the move, calling it part of an effort to secularize the country. They have promised to launch massive street protests to force the government to reverse the decision.

A six-party opposition Islamic alliance in parliament, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, is leading the criticism. Its leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, says the government of President Pervez Musharraf is taking such steps to please the United States and other Western countries.

Mr. Ahmed says President Musharraf is trying to change Pakistan's identity as an Islamic state and is trying to secularize Pakistani society. He says that is why Mr. Musharraf is popular among Western nations, and is receiving their support for his military-led government.

Liberal political parties, religious minorities and human rights groups in Pakistan oppose discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs. Kamila Hyat is a director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"The demand for religion to be included in the column is one of the issues frequently raised by the religious parties to convert a non-issue into an issue," said Kamila Hyat. "We are surprised that in fact the government has paid so much importance to these demands and has taken them up at the very high level."

A major worry of Islamic clerics is that removal of the religion indication in the passports would allow the Ahmedis, a break-away Islamic sect that Pakistan declared non-Muslim and heretical in 1974, to visit Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi consulates do not grant visas for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to any non-Muslims. In the past, Ahmedis, whose religion has been stamped in their passports, have been included in this group.

Under pressure from the conservatives in the Pakistani cabinet, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz set up a ministerial committee on Wednesday to look into the demands for restoration of the religion line in the new passports.