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Afghanistan: Pressure Mounts Over Afghan Conversion Case

President Karzai (file photo) (epa) The Afghan government faces growing international pressure to intervene in a court case in which a man faces a possible death sentence because he converted from Islam to Christianity.

PRAGUE, March 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan embassies in the United States and Europe confirm that they've received numerous inquiries from those governments about a possible death penalty for a man who converted from Islam to Christianity.

Several key donor countries to Afghanistan -- including the United States, Germany, Britain, and Italy -- have officially registered concerns about the case. Australia today joined the calls for clemency -- urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government to do everything it can within Afghan law to protect the rights of individuals to freely practice the religious faith of their choice.

"There is nothing in the [Afghan] Constitution regarding the conversion to another religion. But now that we have such a case, I'm sure that solutions will be found in the Koran and in Shari'a law. The government and parliament are working on it, and we want a fair solution to be found."

U.S. Concern

On March 22, U.S. President George W. Bush said U.S. military forces did not help liberate Afghanistan from Taliban rule so that conservative Islamic judges could issue death sentences against people because of their religious beliefs.

"It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another," Bush said.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has suggested that Afghan could lose aid or technical support for reconstruction because of the case.

"I highly support the idea that we make it clear to Afghanistan, in every way possible, that abiding by and protecting human rights, which Afghanistan is obliged to, includes [protecting the] freedom of religion," Schaeuble said. "We contribute so much to rebuilding Afghanistan and towards its stability, so I really do believe that Afghanistan must realize that we insist upon the freedom of religion. You cannot punish people because they change their religion."

Germany plays a vital role in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. It also is heading an international project to help improve the country's police force.

Western Pressure Or Blackmail?

Afghan Economy Minister Amin Farhang says there is nothing the government in Kabul can do to stop donor countries from withholding aid or technical support. But he says the consequences of such withdrawals would be worse for Western countries than Afghanistan.

"I think that politicians in the West, including in Germany, reacted very emotionally. It shouldn't be like that," Farhang said. "There's a lack of information. And besides, while the situation hasn't been resolved and the final decision hasn't been made yet, they can't threaten to withdraw security forces or foreign aid. That amounts to blackmail."

The 41-year-old Abdul Rahman converted from Islam to Christianity more than 15 years ago. He spent nine years living in Germany. He also worked for a Christian aid group in Pakistan that helped Afghan refugees. Since returning to Afghanistan in 2002, Rahman has become involved in a child-custody dispute with members of his family. Those family members raised the issue of his religious conversion during a recent civil court case over that custody dispute.

Rahman was ordered by a conservative Islamic judge to renounce his Christian beliefs and return to Islam. But Rahman refused to do so.

"I believe in Christianity," he said. "I believe in the Holy Spirit. I am a Christian."

Death For Apostasy

Since making that statement in court, Afghan prosecutors and judges have argued that Rahman should be executed for apostasy -- or turning his back on Islam -- under the country's strict interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law. Among those arguing for the death penalty is Afghan Supreme Court Judge Ansarullah Mawlawizadah.

"If [Abdul Rahman] does not repent, you will all be witness to the sort of punishment he will face," he said.

Mawlawizadah said on March 21 that if Abdul Rahman refuses to repent then his mental state will be examined. If he is determined not to be mentally fit, the case against him would be dismissed. Farhang added that Abdul Rahman "appears to be in a confused state," and concluded that he might be declared insane.

The case presents a major test for the constitution that was created in Afghanistan by a Constitutional Loya Jirga after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

The Koran Or UN Declaration?

That constitution says that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." But the Afghan Constitution also says the country "shall abide" by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Included in that declaration is the statement that all people have the right to change their religion or beliefs.

However, Economy Minister Farhang has suggested that the UN declaration is not binding -- and that any decision by the courts should be based on Shari'a law.

"There is nothing in the [Afghan] Constitution regarding the conversion to another religion," Farhang said. "But now that we have such a case, I'm sure that solutions will be found in the Koran and in Shari'a law. The government and parliament are working on it, and we want a fair solution to be found."

Amin Tarzi, RFE/RL's analyst on Afghanistan, notes that conservative judges in Afghanistan have repeatedly used their support base to challenge Afghanistan's reform-minded government. So far, though, most of the confrontations have been about the limits of press freedom.

Tarzi concludes that the Abdul Rahman case is more challenging for President Karzai than earlier disputes over press freedom. He says Karzai will upset his Western backers if he does not intervene. But he says intervention could undermine Karzai standing among religious conservatives -- a group that he depends upon for political support. Karzai's office said at the beginning of the case that the president has no plans to get involved.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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