A young Hindu boy converted to Islam on a live television show hosted by a controversial Pakistani anchor, triggering outrage among liberals and sparking concerns among minority communities.
The Hindu youth, who appeared to be a teenager and was identified only as Sunil, was converted by Maulana Mufti Muhammad Aqmal on a special live Ramzan show on ARY Digital channel that is hosted by Maya Khan.
During the show beamed on Tuesday, Sunil sat among a group of children and men and said he had decided to convert to Islam while working for the non-governmental organisation headed by rights activist Ansar Burney.
"Two years ago, I observed the fast during Ramzan. There is no pressure on me to accept Islam, I want to accept Islam of my own will," he said in response to questions from Aqmal.
The cleric then asked Sunil to say he was 'accepting Islam without any pressure and without being forced by anyone' and to recite the 'Kalimah Tayyibah'.
Following the conversion, Maya Khan announced that Sunil would be renamed Muhammad Abdullah. Khan, who was sacked by Samaa TV channel earlier this year after she earned the ire of people across Pakistan when she accosted 'immoral' couples dating in Karachi's parks, said she hoped Sunil "would become a good Muslim".
Hindu leaders expressed concern at the development, saying it could increase pressure on the minority community. "This has caused sadness in our community as it does not set a good example. Such shows will increase pressure on ourcommunity," Amarnath Randhawa of the Lahore-based Hindu Sudhar Sabha told PTI.
"Minority communities are already oppressed in Pakistan and the pressure is bound to increase on people when such things are played up in the media," Randhawa said.
Sarim Burney, the brother of Ansar Burney, was part of the show and sat beside Sunil as he was converted.
The show was widely discussed on social media websites and some commentators said it marked a new low in the race for eyeballs and advertising among TV anchors who are hosting special shows during Ramzan.
In an editorial titled 'Religion for ratings', the influential Dawn newspaper said it had become apparent that the "electronic media will go to extreme lengths to spice things up" and even religion was "now fair game too".
"In yet another example of how the industry's commercial goals trump ethics, open-mindedness and common sense, on Tuesday a television show broadcast an imam leading a Hindu boy through a live conversion to Islam... complete with the audience joining in to suggest Muslim names for the new convert," the editorial said.
"More disturbingly, what the channel obviously didn't stop to consider is the message this broadcast would send to the country's minorities. 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. In a country where minorities are already treated as second-class citizens in many ways, this served to marginalise them even further," the daily said.
Omar Quraishi, the editorial pages editor of the liberal The Express Tribune, said Maya Khan's show was part of a trend whereby TV show hosts would go to any lengths to increase their ratings.
"It's also reflective of the increasing trend of religiosity in the public domain in Pakistan," Quraishi told PTI.
"These programmes would never show the conversion of a Muslim, and such shows reinforce the discriminatory treatment of minorities," he said.
Quraishi said the trend was clearly linked to ratings and lucrative advertising by multi-national corporations.
"In a country with a better code of conduct among TV channels, she (Maya Khan) probably wouldn't even get a job," he said. Despite public outrage over the show in which she accosted dating couples, Khan was hired by another channel within weeks.
Pakistan's top religious show is hosted by Aamir Liaquat Hussain, who some years ago had incited violence against the minority Ahmadi sect and was subsequently filmed cracking lewd jokes and making fun of people calling in to his show.