A human rights institute in Netherlands is scheduled to hear on Tuesday the unusual case of a Russian-born Dutch-Israeli man who has accused his university of religious discrimination. It is not the Jewish religion that he was born into, however, that he has come out to defend.
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Michael Afanasyev, who identifies as a Pastafarian, had asked to come dressed as a pirate to his upcoming dissertation defense, citing religious grounds. The Delft University of Technology, where the 38-year-old geohydrologist is a doctoral candidate, rejected the request, saying his proposed attire was “unsuitable” for the occasion.
Among the evidence Afanasyev has gathered in his defense is a copy of his Israeli passport. Issued in 2016, the passport photo shows him wearing a colander on his head. “It allows me to prove that the way I dress is not that weird and has been accepted in other places,” he told Haaretz in a phone interview from his home in Rotterdam.
Pastafarianism, also known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is a movement that challenges some mainstream religious beliefs, such as creationism, and is often regarded with amusement, if not downright suspicion, by outsiders. Adherents claim, however, that theirs is an absolutely legitimate religion and has already been recognized as such in both Netherlands and New Zealand.
Explaining the unusual presence of a colander on his head in his official photo, Afanasyev says: “It’s obviously a sacred item for us because it’s what’s used to drain spaghetti.”
Born in Novosibirsk, Afansyev moved to Israel with his family in 1991, during the height of the mass immigration wave from the former Soviet Union. He left Israel in 2003 for Netherlands but visits the country “every now and then” to see his parents, who stayed in Israel. “It’s hard making the trip that often now that I have small kids,” he says.
When his Israeli passport expired, a little over a year ago, he went to the embassy in The Hague to renew it. He had with him the photo with the colander. The embassy staffers weren’t amused.
“At first they told me that I couldn’t use the photo, so I explained to them that I needed to have the colander on my head for religious reasons,” he relays. “When I told them that I was a Pastafarian, they said, ‘That isn’t a religion.’ ‘Yes, it is,’ I said. ”
After a few phone calls to Israel, embassy representatives informed him that he wouldn’t be able to get a new passport issued with the photo he wanted until he was registered as a Pastafarian with the Israeli Population Registry. He subsequently applied but was rejected. “The reason I was given was that Pastafarianism is not on the list of recognized religions in Israel,” he recounts.
It took a few months, but Israel’s Population Registry finally agreed to issue him the passport with the controversial photo, even though his request for recognition as a Pastafaian had been denied. Afanasyev has meanwhile hired a lawyer in Israel to appeal the matter.
A Pastafarian priest, Afansyev says that pirates are viewed as holy in his religion. Hence, the requirement to dress like them at official events. As a child who always took an interest in stories about pirates, he recounts, he was naturally drawn to Pastafarianism. He registered as a Pastafarian as soon as the religion was officially recognized in Holland a few years ago.
His case will be heard at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, but its decision, Afanasyev says, will not be binding on the university. “I think I have some pretty compelling arguments for them, though,” he says.
Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Interior Ministry said that because it was the Justice Ministry that determines the religions recognized by the state, the Population Registry — a part of the Interior Ministry — had no discretion in considering Afanasyev’s request to be registered as a Pastafarian.
Asked why the Population Registry ultimately agreed to allow him to be photographed with a colander on his head for his passport, she responded: “As long as his face is exposed and it is possible to identify him, and as long as he met all the other requirements for passport photographs, the embassy could not prevent him from using this particular photo.”