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Afghan convert case stirs GOP angst

The possible death penalty for Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who converted to Christianity, has stirred an outcry among religious conservatives, who are often President Bush’s most loyal supporters.
Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who converted from Islam to Christianity, could be sentenced to death.Ariana Television / APTN / AP file
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WASHINGTON — As if Republicans didn’t already have enough to worry about as they look toward the November elections — President Bush’s low poll numbers, an unclear forecast for immigration bill that would satisfy the GOP base, bad press over the "Duke" Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals — now comes another potential 2006 election headache, Abdul Rahman.

The possible death penalty for Rahman, an Afghan who converted to Christianity, has stirred an outcry among religious conservatives, who are among President Bush’s most loyal supporters.

On Friday, NBC News reported that the Afghan government intends to release Abdul Rahman by Monday barring unforeseen circumstances. If so, Republicans will have escaped a troublesome election issue.

In the United States, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist denounced the idea that U.S. soldiers had fought to set up an Afghan government which might now execute a convert to Christianity.

Was U.S. effort worth it?
In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Frist said, “the United States has not spent the last four years liberating, defending, rebuilding and assisting Afghanistan’s democratic development only to see the Afghani people remain subject to laws reminiscent of the Taliban reign.”

“Especially given our role in helping to free Afghanistan from the rule of the Taliban, the U.S. government should press the government to free Mr. Rahman and dismiss the unjust charges against him,” said two conservative Republican senators, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, as they fired off their own letter to Rice Thursday.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, an influential Christian conservative advocacy group, told MSNBC’s Hardball Thursday night that the Karzai government appears to be “just as hostile to religious freedoms, just as hostile to human rights” as was the Taliban regime which the United States toppled in 2001. “We bear responsibility for that,” he said. 

Perkins said, “The resolve of the American people will not long stand if they know they are giving their sons and daughters to die for just changing the names of regimes that kill Christians and those who want religious freedom.”

Pelosi assails 'extremism' On Friday afternoon, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi entered the controversy, releasing a statement in which she said, "The United States has been heavily engaged in the rebuilding of Afghanistan and has a responsibility to speak out when religious extremism threatens Afghan citizens. A civilized society does not execute its citizens for expressing their faith."

DeMint said in a phone interview from South Carolina Friday afternoon that he was more optimistic that Rice, having talked with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, might be able to smooth the way to a resolution that spared Rahman’s life.

He urged Americans to “allow the administration to work without too much more noise” to resolve the issue diplomatically.

“I know the American people are looking closely at this and wondering, ‘What kind of government have we helped to set up?’ It’s very important that this be resolved in a way that makes sense to us back home,” DeMint said.

As he tours his own state, DeMint said, people at his stops are asking him about the Rahman case. “People are aware of this and they are watching,” he said.

If Rahman is put to death, how much would it demoralize Americans who support Bush and the war effort in Afghanistan?

“We know the people of Afghanistan are better off than under the Taliban, I don’t think many people question that,” said DeMint. “But if a person of religious conviction is executed, I know it will confuse and frustrate many Americans. Who knows the long-term results, but I’d be terribly frustrated,” he said.

Clout of religious voters
How important are religious conservative voters to GOP hopes and will the Rahman controversy dishearten Republican voters in the November elections?

Voters who say they attend church at least once a week made up about 40 percent of the electorate in 2004, according to exit polling, and of those voters, more than 60 percent of them cast their ballots for Bush.

Exit polls suggested that 78 percent of those who identified themselves as evangelical Christians voted for Bush.

DeMint said the election effect if Rahman is put to death is not knowable.

“Republicans and Democrats would be confused and frustrated and to what the degree the other side (Democrats) would try to use it, we really don’t know. We are in contentious partisan times so almost anything that comes up tends to morph into a political issue. I’m not sure what it would do to the election but I’m sure it would have some impact.”

University of Akron political scientist John Green, who has long studied evangelical voters, said, "This is just the sort of case that can galvanize evangelicals. But I’m not sure that it will hurt the Republicans and Bush if they do everything possible. It will certainly intensify the negative views of evangelicals toward Muslims and Islam."