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Afghans struggle over Christian convert issue

Afghan officials, trying to resolve a crisis over an Afghan who may face the death penalty for converting to Christianity, struggled on Saturday to satisfy conflicting international and domestic demands.
Frame grab shows Rahman holding a translated version of Bible in Kabul court
Abdul Rahman, who faces the death penalty for converting to Christianity, holds a translated version of the Bible at a court in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.Reuters TV file
/ Source: Reuters

Afghan officials, trying to resolve a crisis over an Afghan who may face the death penalty for converting to Christianity, struggled on Saturday to satisfy conflicting international and domestic demands.

The controversy over the man who abandoned Islam, Abdur Rahman, 40, threatens to drive a wedge between Afghanistan and the Western backers who ensure its security and finance its development. Rahman’s trial is due to start in a few days.

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.

“There are lots of discussions going on,” said a government official who declined to be identified.

“We know there’s a lot of international concern ... We want to resolve this in a way that accommodates all expectations—international expectations and the expectations of the people.”

Rahman was detained last week for converting to Christianity, judicial officials say. Death is the punishment stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy. The Afghan legal system is based on a mixture of civil and sharia law.

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The case has sparked an outcry in North America and Europe and led to some calls for peacekeeping troops to be withdrawn.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

“We are working with the Afghans and we look to a favourable resolution of this case,” Rice said. “We’ve been very clear: The freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of democracy.”

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

Pope Benedict has written to Karzai urging clemency for Rahman, the Italian news agency ANSA said on Saturday.

Benedict sent a letter in the past few days “which appeals for respect for human rights sanctioned in the preamble of the new Afghan constitution,” it added.

‘Polar opposites’
Rahman told a preliminary hearing last week he had become a Christian while working for an aid group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan 15 years ago. He later lived in Germany before returning to Afghanistan.

He was detained after his family told authorities he had converted, apparently following a family dispute involving two daughters, a judicial official said.

A chorus of clerics, politicians and ordinary people in the deeply conservative Muslim country is demanding Rahman be tried under Islamic law, though some Afghans say privately they support greater freedom of religion.

Karzai cannot ignore the conservatives or appear to bow to Western pressure. Canada said he had pledged that Rahman would not be executed.

A prosecutor has raised questions about Rahman’s mental state, and a judge said that could be taken into account. Rahman has denied he is mentally unstable.

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.