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Pope seeks clemency for Afghan convert

Pope Benedict has written to Afghan President Hamid Karzai asking that charges be dropped against a man facing a possible death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity, the Vatican said on Saturday.
/ Source: Reuters

Pope Benedict has written to Afghan President Hamid Karzai asking that charges be dropped against a man facing a possible death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity, the Vatican said on Saturday.

The appeal was sent in the pope’s name by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who told him that the pope’s appeal was inspired by “profound human compassion” and by the “firm belief in the dignity of human life and by respect for every person’s freedom of conscience and religion.”

President George W. Bush and several other Western leaders have expressed grave concern at the threatened death penalty for Abdur Rahman, 40. Sharia (Islamic law), on which Afghan law is partly based, stipulates death for apostasy.

“I am certain, Mr. President, that the dropping of the case against Mr. Rahman would bestow great honor upon the Afghan people and would raise a chorus of admiration in the international community,” the letter said.

The Afghan constitution says “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam” but also says it will abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines freedom of religion.

Sodano told Karzai in the letter that dropping charges “would then contribute in a most significant way to our common mission to foster mutual understanding and respect among the world’s different religions and cultures.”

International pressure on Afghanistan to respect Rahman’s religious freedom and release him from jail has been met in Afghanistan by calls for him to be tried under Islamic law and executed, and a threat of rebellion if the government frees him.

The controversy threatens to drive a wedge between Afghanistan and the Western backers who secure and finance the country. Rahman’s trial is due to start in a few days.

The case has sparked an outcry in North America and Europe and led to some calls for peacekeeping troops to be withdrawn.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday she had met both President Hamid Karzai and the foreign minister.

U.S. forces have been battling Taliban insurgents since defeating their government in late 2001. The United States is Afghanistan’s most important ally.