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Interfaith activists' trip to Jerusalem causes stir in home country of Pakistan

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A Jewish man in Pakistan told NPR in 2018 that he had a dream.

FISHEL BENKHALD: Mark my words. Either Pakistani state allows me or not, I'm going to celebrate Passover next year in Jerusalem, Israel.

PFEIFFER: He finally made it to Israel last week with a group of interfaith activists, mostly Pakistani American Muslims. The visit didn't get much attention from Israelis and Palestinians, but it caused a stir in Pakistan. From Jerusalem and Islamabad, NPR's Daniel Estrin and Diaa Hadid report.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Fishel BenKhald is one of the very few Jews in Pakistan. He opens his passport and reads the phrase written inside.

BENKHALD: This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.

ESTRIN: But here he is at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He joined a small delegation of Pakistani Americans organized by a Muslim American interfaith group and sponsored by an Israeli NGO trying to build bridges with Muslim-majority countries.

BENKHALD: So these are the two wing of the same angel which took me from Pakistan and brought me to Jerusalem to the land where my heart and my soul is connected to.

ESTRIN: The activists toured Tel Aviv, visited Israel's Holocaust museum, even had a private meeting with the Israeli president. The group's Palestinian tour guide took them to the Al-Aqsa Mosque central to Islam.

RANA SEYD: It is such a blessing to be here in Masjid Al-Aqsa.

ESTRIN: Pakistani American Rana Seyd.

SEYD: The best moment of my life, Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah, that I have come here and prayed.

ESTRIN: Did you think you would ever be here as a Muslim?

SEYD: Never. Never, ever. It's very true that on Pakistani passport I couldn't have traveled. But that is why I prayed here that may Allah please guide each one of us to be friends.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Here in Pakistan, the government, like many Muslim countries, refuses diplomatic ties with Israel until Palestinians get an independent state. But a few years ago, Pakistan's neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, signed a treaty with Israel, the Abraham Accords. And there's been constant speculation among Pakistanis about whether their country might do the same.

AHMED QURAISHI: Pakistan is in the news mainly for the wrong reasons, Taliban and so forth.

HADID: A talk show host with Pakistan state TV was on the trip, Ahmed Quraishi.

QURAISHI: It is actually one of the countries that you could include in the list of moderate nations, and those moderate states include Israel.

HADID: His visit to Israel stirred controversy in Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman was asked in a press briefing, and didn't answer, whether there are secret negotiations to recognize Israel.

ESTRIN: Here in Israel, I asked the minister of intelligence, Elazar Stern, about Pakistan.

ELAZAR STERN: I cannot tell you that Pakistan is the next state to join Abraham Accord, and that is, you know, it's going to happen tomorrow. We hope that every moderate Muslim state country in the Middle East will join Abrahamic Accord.

HADID: Israel and Pakistan have had quiet military and security ties for years. They're both nuclear powers. But Pakistani public opinion is firmly with Palestinians. For instance, Pakistanis often incorporate a Palestinian flag into their social media profiles.

ESTRIN: Pakistan may not be ready to normalize relations because Pakistan doesn't have the same concern about Iran that drove its Gulf neighbors toward Israel.

HADID: And political opinion in Pakistan is polarized right now as the country lurches from one political crisis to another. The thing that would almost certainly unite most Pakistanis is their opposition to normal relations with Israel.

ESTRIN: But Pakistani Fishel BenKhaldi thinks climate change is one good reason to turn to Israel, a water technology powerhouse.

BENKHALD: Water shortages happening all over the world, including my country, Pakistan. We can benefit from drip irrigation technology, the water purification technology of Israel. We need that, not after 50 years, no, in the next 15 years, we are requiring that.

ESTRIN: It may seem that a small interfaith group would have little influence on a country's foreign policy, but a similar group made a visit from Bahrain before Bahrain opened ties with Israel. Trips like this can be a trial balloon. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

HADID: And I'm Diaa Hadid in Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.