Religion Back in Pakistan Passports After Protests

Islamabad, Pakistan -- Pakistan reversed on Thursday a decision to drop a requirement for passport holders to state their religion after angry protests from Islamists who saw it as a U.S.-inspired move to secularize society.

The cabinet decision to reinstate the requirement drew criticism from a secular political party and a human rights campaigner who said the government had caved in to pressure from religious conservatives.

"The cabinet today decided to restore the religion column in passports," Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed told Reuters after a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

The row was the latest to pit more liberal elements in Pakistan, including President Pervez Musharraf who has called for a society of "enlightened moderation," against conservatives.

The government deleted a column for religion in new, machine-readable passports, issued for the first time in October, but the decision enraged Islamists who saw it as a threat to Pakistan's identity as an Islamic state.

Thousands of conservative Muslims, many of whom also oppose Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism, took to the streets in a series of rallies to denounce the move.

They accused Musharraf of dropping the religion column at the behest of the United States and to enable Ahmedis, a dissident Islamic sect declared non-Muslim and heretical in Pakistan in 1974, to visit Islam's holy cities in Saudi Arabia.

Secular politicians and rights activists criticized Thursday's decision, saying it would encourage conservatives to make more demands.

"The most tragic aspect of this is that he has done it under the pressure of obscurantist and extremist forces," said Iqbal Haider, a former law minister and secretary general of the private Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, referring to Musharraf. "Once you withdraw a positive decision, it encourages the militant and extremist forces to press ahead with their other reactionary demands," he told Reuters.

The party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto also denounced the decision saying the government was "allowing bigots and fanatics information they could use to harass, discriminate and otherwise mistreat minorities."

About 95 percent of Pakistan's 150 million people are Muslim and many are moderate, but conservative religious leaders wield significant influence in some sections of society. (Additional reporting by Amir Zia in Karachi)