Christian cricketer converts to Islam
by Inayat Bernard
Sportsman publicly urges his former co-religionists to follow his example. Anger and pain prevail in the country's Christian community. Archbishop of Lahore tells AsiaNews that his invitation to convert is a "true sin".

Lahore (AsiaNews) - Yousaf Youhanna was the first Christian to get a spot on Pakistan's national cricket team after being a Muslim preserve for 35 years. Now, the player, who is still on the team, says he has converted to Islam. At a press conference in Gaddafi Stadium in his home town of Lahore, the cricketer announced that he had embraced Islam.

A maulana (Muslim cleric) led Yousaf (now known as Mohammad), his team mates and cricket fans in a namaz (a thanksgiving prayer).

According to state television, which broadcast the event, Youhanna publicly urged his former fellow Pakistani Christians to follow his example and that of his wife and child who have "already done it".

Mgr Lawrence Saldanha, Archbishop of Lahore, calls the invitation to convert a "sin". "His attitude," the prelate said, "does not reflect the policy of "enlightened moderation" promoted by President Musharraf, who is trying to show a more tolerant image of Islam. And it was the politician who urged Christians not to react in a negative fashion but to remain faithful to the religion of their ancestors"

For Fr Nadeem John, director of the Wave studio, "Yousaf represented the Christians on the national team. He gave an image of tolerance and fair play. Now he is nowhere."

Lahore's Christian fans are less diplomatic. "He has betrayed us," said Hanif Masih, 60. He has done this to get the captain's spot."

One young girl emotionally said: 'If I had a chance I would choke him because he has grossly disgraced us!'

"I used to watch cricket on the TV only to see him but now I will never watch cricket again," vowed Sardar John.

A Christian rickshaw driver complained that Muslims are now taunting him.

Sister Genevieve, a Sister of Charity in Lahore, was told by a Muslim youth: "He is no longer yours, he is ours now!"

Yousaf Youhanna, 31, comes from Bail Ahata, a poor working class neighbourhood in Lahore. About ten years ago, he broke into the highly competitive world of professional cricket by virtue of his natural talent as a batsman.

He became a senior member of the national team and was even vice captain for three years and made several match winning scores.

He used to make the sign of the cross whenever he scored 50 or 100 runs. This bold public affirmation of his faith won him praise from his Christian fans.

For many, his sudden conversion stems from the strong pressures of his team mates. He also came under the influence of an Islamic missionary society called Tablighi Jama'at (Missionary association).

While Muslims warmly welcomed him into the Islamic fold, others noted that, despite his popularity, Youhanna is not likely to be fully accepted. The sportsman will always be seen as Masalli, namely a convert from an inferior caste, who can never be considered as an equal by his Muslim brothers.