In just five minutes, 20-year-old Sunil officially became Muhammad Abdullah — in front of a cheering television audience.
During a prime-time Ramzan chat show hosted by controversial Pakistani anchor Maya Khan on Tuesday, a packed studio audience congratulated Sunil as he converted from Hinduism to Islam, and shouted out suggestions for his new Muslim name — Muhammad Abdullah was the consensus choice.
Abdullah insisted Friday that he had converted willingly. “I have accepted Islam of my own will and my family has no objection,” he said.
However, the conversion has sparked criticism among religious minorities in the Muslim country.
“The joy with which the conversion was greeted and the congratulations that followed sent a signal that other religions don’t enjoy the same status in Pakistan as Islam does,” wrote Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest newspaper.
Abdullah said he had decided to convert while working for rights activist Ansar Burney’s NGO.
Two years ago, I observed the fast during Ramzan. There is no pressure on me to accept Islam," he said.
His statements did little to quell public anger. "There is no reason to think the boy was not converting of his own free will, but the whole event had the distinct air of being carried out to give viewers something new and different to watch, even if that meant dragging an intensely personal and spiritual experience into public view," wrote Dawn.
Others warned it could encourage intolerance. "We are already intimidated. The government pays little heed to the kidnapping of Hindus and forced faith conversion of our girls. Please don't do things that alienate us further,” said Ramesh Kumar, a leader of the Pakistan Hindu Council.
"Think about how Muslims would feel if Buddhists in Burma show a Muslim being converted on a live TV show," said Talat Hussain, who hosts a political show on private television channel DawnNews.
According to Pakistan government figures, Hindus make up 2.5% of the country's population of around 180 million.