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Afghanistan: Christian Convert Faces Execution

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, April 2005 (file photo) (epa) The United States said on Monday it is watching "very closely" the case of an Afghan man who is facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. The case, which a German official has called "intolerable," is thought to be the first prosecution for converting to Christianity in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime more than four years ago.

PRAGUE, March 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some 15 years ago, Abdul Rahman made a decision that may now cost him his life.

Wwhile working for an international Christian aid organization helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan, he abandoned Islam and became a Christian.

On his return to Afghanistan from Germany in 2002, 41-year-old Abdul Rahman told his relatives about his faith.

And it is they who reportedly denounced him to authorities in February. When police arrived to arrest and charge him with rejecting Islam, they found him carrying a Bible.

Germany sent peacekeeper to help Afghanistan "become a democratic country, not so that people can be sentenced to death on religious grounds."

During a court appearance on March 16, Abdul Rahman admitted that he converted from Islam to Christianity -- and, under Afghanistan's Islamic Sharia law, he could now be executed for apostasy.

A Test Of Religious Freedoms

The case is causing concern among human rights organizations, Christian groups, and Western governments.

"It's his right to choose what religion he believes in,'' says Brad Adams, who heads the Asia desk of Human Rights Watch. "Apostasy is not recognized in international law. People have the right to have freedom of conscience."

In Europe, Italy's foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini, summoned the Afghan ambassador to Rome to register his concerns. And in Germany, a senior figure in the country's defense ministry, Friedbert Pflueger, has called the trial "intolerable."

Germany had contributed 2,450 soldiers to the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan to help it "become a democratic country, not so that people can be sentenced to death on religious grounds," Pflueger said.

The U.S. State Department is also watching Abdul Rahman's case "very closely."

"It's important, we believe, that the Afghan authorities conduct this trial and any proceedings that lead up to it in as transparent a manner as possible," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on March 20. "Our that tolerance, freedom of worship is an important element of any democracy," McCormack said, adding that Afghanistan will increasingly need to deal with such issues "as Afghan democracy matures."

A Test Of Afghanistan's Judiciary

Brad Adams of New York-based Human Rights Watch believes the case is a test for Afghanistan's justice system -- and "if this case is allowed to go forward it will be a failed test."

But, he argues, "if they are able to dismiss this case, as they should, it still doesn't mean that all the problems are solved."

"This is a very conservative group of people in charge of Afghanistan's court and virtually nothing has been done since the Taliban was thrown out to address this problem," says Adams, who highlights for criticism "very extreme statements about religion [and] about the rights of women" by the head of the country's Supreme Court.

The case is, he contends, "a sign that some of the more conservative elements in Afghanistan are trying to take control of the country's court system and the country's social discussion."

International Christian Concern (ICC), a U.S.-based organization that assists Christians who are victims of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, has called for Abdul Rahman's immediate acquittal.

In a statement, the ICC says "Afghanistan had already had enough of religious extremism under the Taliban."

The organization is calling on President Hamid Karzai to defend freedom of religion by pardoning Abdul Rahman.

But reports say Karzai's office has indicated he will not intervene in the case.

Judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada has said that if Abdul Rahman does not reconvert to Islam, the court would have no alternative but to sentence him to death.

So far, Rahman shows no sign of relenting. Mawlavizada says Abdul Rahman was asked but refused to return to the religion of his birth.

Afghan court officials have said that a ruling could be issued within two months.

Abdul Rahman's fate may also be in the hand of psychiatrists, as the court has asked for an appraisal of his mental state before a judgment is made.

If he is found guilty, Afghan law gives Abdul Rahman the right to lodge two appeals with higher courts.

Afghanistan's constitution states that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." At the same time, it says that the country should abide by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That states that everyone has the right to change his religion or belief.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.