Human rights activists have criticised the National Database and Registration Authority’s (NADRA) apparent policy to refuse to change ‘Islam’ as a person’s religion in their records.
MPA Rana Asif Mahmood was recently summoned by the courts to answer a petition seeking his disqualification from his Punjab Assembly seat reserved for minorities on the grounds that NADRA identified him as a Muslim in its records.
Mahmood told The Express Tribune that he was a Christian and NADRA had mistakenly identified him as a Muslim because of his name. He said NADRA had refused to rectify the error.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a NADRA official said that while a person could get their religion changed in the records from a religion other than Islam to another faith, the same could not be done if the person wanted to change their religion from Islam to another faith.
“If a person says he is from a certain faith, NADRA should take his word for it,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.
He said that he had come across other examples of NADRA misidentifying a person’s religion because of their name. He said that NADRA should rectify such mistakes if an applicant showed proof of their religion. “It’s as simple as showing a certificate from the church, which carries a record of people of the Christian faith,” he said.
NADRA Public Relations Officer Farrukh Mushtaq said though he was not completely sure, it was “very likely” that a request by a person identified as a Muslim to change their religion would not be accommodated.
“My understanding of the matter is that if stated by the person himself that he/she is a Muslim, the religion cannot be changed,” he said. However, he added that it the ID card recipient provided evidence of their religion and established that there had been a clerical error, the request would be entertained.
Mushtaq said that a clerical error was highly unlikely. “Data is cross checked several times in cases of identity card entries,” he said.
He said that once a person applied for an ID card and his particulars were recorded, they were sent a form for attestation. At this stage, the applicant could attest that the information was correct, or report that it was not.
Mahmood, however, said that he had noticed the error in the entry for religion in his attestation form and reported it to NADRA. He said that he received his ID card and it did not mention religion, so he assumed that NADRA had changed its records. However, when his son applied for an ID card last September, he was told that he could not put down Christianity as his religion because the records showed his father to be a Muslim.
Upon approaching NADRA officials for corrections, Mahmood said he was told that there was no provision for changing the religion entry. “I have since realised that many people whose names do not reflect their religion have suffered this problem,” he said.
Human rights activist Khalid Shah said that NADRA should review its policy. “With a stroke of a pen, a man is being forced to call himself a Muslim despite not being one,” he said.
He said that the courts should direct NADRA to rectify errors such as apparently occurred in Mahmood’s case. “Typographical errors costing a person his religion and then not being rectified – that’s very disturbing,” said Shah.
IA Rehman, the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that there should be an investigation into why Mahmood had been put down as a Muslim in the first place, and why NADRA had refused to change it when Mahmood pointed it out to them. “If he can present evidence that he belongs to the Christian faith, he should not be troubled,” he said.
About NADRA’s policy to not change the religion entry if it were down as Islam, Rehman said it was “unfortunate and a violation of human rights”. He said that the policy appeared to be a reflection of customs prohibiting a Muslim from changing their religion, but it was still a violation of a person’s basic human rights.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2012.