Trans and Christian, Living in Legal Limbo

A Pakistani man struggles for religious asylum.

By Celina De Le?n Nov 24, 2008

These days, Issa Fazli is taking comfort in the Bible. One verse from Matthew 5:11 is the only text that graces his personal website encouraging strength in the face of persecution. It’s a much needed refrain for Fazli, who as a Pakistani, Christian, transgendered man, is awaiting a decision from the U.S. government determining whether or not he will be granted religious asylum along with his wife.

Fazli made two transitions while living in the United States.

He converted from Islam to Christianity, and in 1999, he transitioned to living as a man. He didn’t tell his parents who were in Pakistan about the sex change. “I just figured I would take care of everything and surprise them,” Fazli said.

His parents felt betrayed about this but when Fazli phoned them to say that he had gotten married, they were ecstatic on the phone and insisted on throwing a big wedding for their son and new daughter-in-law, Saadia Asghar.

Fazli felt confident his parents understood that he identified now as a man. He had been telling his parents since the age of 4 that he was a boy and not a girl. With that in the past, Issa looked longingly for a family reunion, and thought this wedding celebration in Pakistan would be a means to a happy ending. “You hope for the best, and that things will be different this time,” Fazli said. But instead of a loving wedding, Issa and Saadia received about four and a half years of house arrest, harassment and persecution.

It wasn’t though because of his gender identity.

Upon Fazli and Asghar’s arrival in the country for their wedding celebration, the change that Fazli’s family refused to accept was that he had converted to Christianity.

Under Sharia law in Pakistan, there is no acceptance or protection for Christians and Fazli’s family made sure he and his wife paid a price for disowning their religion. Well-connected as a government official in Punjab—the richest province in Pakistan—and an Islamic fundamentalist, Fazli’s father used his authority to prohibit them from leaving the country. The government-controlled airline refused to issue the couple boarding passes for their flight home to the U.S.

As the months passed, Fazli and his wife lived in several apartments, all the while trying to regain the documentation they needed to get back to the U.S. They were evicted without notice, came home to carcasses of chickens, cats and dogs at their doorstep, were spied on and followed, robbed and almost killed in a car chase. Amidst all this, Fazli actually noted that his father was lenient since people who convert to Christianity are often murdered for dishonoring their family in what is known as an “honor killing.”

Fazli and his wife went to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the National Commission on the Status of Women for help (both are agencies that investigate honor killings). Letters were sent to various government agencies on behalf of the couple. Pakistani newspapers soon covered their story. One article even used fake names to protect their identities.

Finally in 2005, after four years and four months, Fazli and Saadia were allowed to renew their passports and return to New York. But arriving in the U.S., Fazli was forced to surrender his green card and Pakistani passport. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, legal residents who live outside the country for more than a year automatically forfeit their permanent residency status. In a post-9/11 world, the rules are even stricter. Fazli was charged with abandoning his residency even though he was kept from entering the U.S. against his free will.

Fazli applied for religious asylum and turned to Catholic Charities for help before his U.S. immigration court hearing in 2007. His case continues to be postponed though and he’s waiting to secure a lawyer to represent him in court.

In the meantime, he has a work authorization permit. Ironically, one of his gigs had him conducting surveys and polls on the 2008 presidential election and state ballots for a marketing company.