By DECLAN WALSH
GHOTKI, Pakistan — Banditry is an old scourge in this impoverished district of southern Pakistan, on the plains between the mighty river Indus and a sprawling desert, where roving gangs rob and kidnap with abandon. Lately, though, local passions have stirred with allegations of an unusual theft: that of a young woman’s heart.
In the predawn darkness on Feb. 24, Rinkel Kumari, a 19-year-old student from a Hindu family, disappeared from her home in Mirpur Mathelo, a small village off a busy highway in Sindh Province. Hours later, she resurfaced 12 miles away, at the home of a prominent Muslim cleric who phoned her parents with news that distressed them: Their daughter wished to convert to Islam, he said.
Their protests were futile. By sunset, Ms. Kumari had become a Muslim, married a young Muslim man, and changed her name to Faryal Bibi.
Over the past month, this conversion has generated an acrid controversy that has reverberated far beyond its origins in small-town Pakistan, whipping up a news media frenzy that has traced ugly sectarian divisions and renewed a wider debate about the protection of vulnerable minorities in a country that has so often failed them.
At its heart, though, it is a head-on clash of narratives and motives.
Hindu leaders insist that Ms. Kumari was abducted at gunpoint and forced to abandon her religion. ….
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