Pakistan TV preacher defends Ramadan baby give-away

A charismatic Muslim preacher criticised for giving out babies to childless couples live on prime-time Pakistani television denies he is fighting a ratings war and insists he is spreading charity.

Aamir Liaqat Hussain, one of the biggest stars on Pakistani TV, spoke to AFP as a local foundation involved in the process said a third baby is due to be given away in the coming days.

Hussain broadcasts a marathon 12-hour show each day during the holy month of Ramadan, watched by millions across the country.

He mesmerises his audience with celebrity interviews, game shows, by providing in-studio meals to the needy -- and, in two consecutive weeks, handing out baby girls to childless couples.

But international media coverage and public criticism of the baby give-aways has seen him vigorously deny that he is pulling out all the stops to maximise ratings in a competitive Ramadan TV market.

"It is not like parents come in the show, and (we) deliver the baby like a prize. What prize? It is rubbish to say 'who wants to win a baby?'" he told AFP on the sidelines of his chat show.

He insists the two couples were pre-screened for their suitability as parents, and says he is right to find good homes for abandoned babies in a country without official laws of adoption.

"We are trying to create an environment in the society for those people who are needy and want to adopt babies," Hussain said.

"It is not commercialisation, it is not showbiz. It is real Islam. Where are the actors? Where are actresses? I have not seen any actors or actresses here," he added.

A local charity told AFP it was involved in the screening process that took place before the babies were handed over.

It supported the show for discouraging women from abandoning unwanted babies and men from divorcing wives who cannot give birth.

"We give adoption to those couples only on merit basis," said Ramzan Chhipa, head of the Chhipa Welfare Association.

He said both couples had been screened and went on the show expecting to be given infants. A third baby is expected to be handed over in coming days, Chhipa told AFP.

"It is not 'you answer a question on a show and you get a baby'. This is false." he said.

One of the couples said they married more than 15 years ago but have been unable to have their own child.

They registered with Chhipa and told AFP they were interviewed earlier this month by the charity, before the TV show programme rang them up the day before the show aired, asking them to appear.

"I cannot express in words our happiness. There was a great void in our life and that is filled by having this baby," said the father Said Zulfiqar Hussain, a policeman from Karachi.

"This child is the future of Pakistan," said the mother Soreya Bilqees who dreams her daughter will grow up and join the army.

Presenter Hussain is no stranger to controversy.

In 2008, guests invited onto one of his shows said members of the Ahmadi minority should be killed.

Two well-known Ahmadis were subsequently murdered, although there was no evidence linking their killings to the TV show.

Under military ruler Pervez Musharraf, Hussain was forced to resign as junior religious affairs minister because of his views on controversial blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty.

He was also unable to authenticate an alleged degree in Islamic Studies from a college in Spain. Known as doctor, he claims to have a diploma from a medical college in Pakistan.

Television was liberalised during Musharraf's 1999-2008 rule and there is growing debate within Pakistan about media ethics and the blurring of the lines between entertainment and religion.

Last year, a TV programme was criticised by minorities and rights activists for showing the live conversion of a Hindu man to Islam on the grounds that it fanned religious intolerance.

Tauseef Ahmed Khan, chairman of the mass communications department at the Federal Urdu University, said the baby give-away had taken the controversy to a new level.

"Unfortunately they have adopted the role of reformers whereas they are entertainers," he told AFP.

"Giving away babies on the show sends negative signals to society and should be very discreet. They also claim to reduce poverty through giving away gifts but they are hurting the self respect of poor people on their shows in the race for ratings and in the competition to attract more advertisements," he added.

But Hussain is unrepentant.

"People love me, that is why they watch me. Through television we spread the message of tolerance," he told AFP.