KARACHI: A Pakistani Hindu's conversion to Islam live on television during a prime-time Ramadan chat show has sparked criticism on behalf of religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.
In just five minutes, the 20-year-old introduced as Sunil officially changed his religion under a cleric's guidance.
A packed studio audience congratulated him and shouted out suggestions for his new Muslim name before he was renamed Mohammad Abdullah -- the consensus choice.
Abdullah insisted on Friday that he had been a willing convert.
"I have accepted Islam by my own will and my family has no objection," he told AFP by telephone from the Ansar Burney Welfare Trust, where a staff member said he has worked as their office boy for the last six years.
But Pakistan has been criticised by rights groups for showing an increased lack of tolerance towards religious minorities, who complain of discrimination, and critics blasted the show, broadcast by private channel ARY on Wednesday.
"The joy with which the conversion was greeted and the congratulations that followed sent a clear signal that other religions don't enjoy the same status in Pakistan as Islam does," wrote Dawn, Pakistan's oldest newspaper, on Friday.
"In a country where minorities are already treated as second-class citizens in many ways, this served to marginalise them even further," it said.
It was a second recent controversy for chat show host Maya Khan, who was this year sacked by a rival channel after chasing couples in a public park, accusing them of behaving immorally.
Ramesh Kumar, a leader of the Pakistan Hindu Council, told AFP that Wednesday's programme would encourage intolerance.
"We are already intimidated against. The government gives little heed to the kidnapping of Hindus and forced faith conversion of our girls. Please don't do things that make us more alienated," he told AFP.
Talat Hussain, who hosts a political show on private television channel DawnNews, also warned against turning religion into mass entertainment.
"Think about how Muslims would feel when Buddhists in Burma show similarly a Muslim being converted in a live TV show," he told AFP.
According to Pakistan government figures, Hindus make up 2.5 percent of the nuclear-armed country's population of around 180 million. AGENCIES