PRAGUE, March 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says he thinks more than 10,000 Afghans have converted from Islam to Christianity and now live in Afghanistan.
Adams says the recent charge of apostasy against Christian convert Abdul Rahman has left thousands of others frightened that they could be executed for openly expressing their religious beliefs.
"There are reports that there are thousands of Christians in Afghanistan -- all of whom are afraid of the death penalty for apostasy and have to go about their religious observance in secret," Adams said. "It's no different than it used to be like in the Soviet Union, or in some parts of China now or North Korea. It is not good enough [for the Afghan government] to say that, 'Well, this case has been resolved and we can just move on.' There's a real problem in Afghanistan with religious intolerance. There's nothing more essential than to say that everybody has the right to choose his or her own religion. It's not true that people are born into religion and have no right to change their mind."
No Clear Precedent In The Case
Adams says he and other human-rights advocates lament that the apostasy case against Rahman appears to have ended on a technicality about his mental condition rather than a clear legal precedent that protects the religious freedom of all Afghans.
Afghan Justice Minister Sarwar Danish says Rahman was acquitted of the charges of apostasy -- or abandoning the Islamic faith -- and will not be put to death.
But Danish would not comment on the legal grounds for Abdul Rahman's release. Earlier, Danish said there were questions about Abdul Rahman's mental capacity to stand trial. Rahman was sent to an Afghan mental hospital for psychological tests before his release from custody overnight.
Fear Of Granting Asylum?
Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, says he expects Rahman will be granted political asylum in one of the Western countries that has demanded respect for his religious freedom.
"Mr. Abdul Rahman has asked for asylum outside Afghanistan," Edwards said. "We expect that one of the countries which has been seeking a peaceful solution to this will come forward with an offer."
The United States has said it would support efforts to find Rahman a safe haven. Italy's Foreign Ministry says the Italian government will discuss on March 29 whether to offer asylum to Rahman. But some Western diplomats in Kabul say the sensitivity of the case is making governments carefully consider Rahman's request.
Public discontent in Afghanistan about Rahman's release is strong. Diplomats say any country that accepts his asylum request will risk becoming a target of demonstrations.
UN officials have refused to confirm reports that Rahman moved to the protection of a UN compound in Afghanistan today. Afghan prison and judicial officials also would not say where Rahman was today amid concerns that he may be attacked by angry crowds of demonstrators who are calling for his execution.
Hundreds of Afghans gathered in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on March 27 to demand that Rahman be put to death under Afghanistan's interpretation of Shari'a law.
"Death to Abdul Rahman and his apostasy! Death to those who desert Islam! Justice! Justice!" demonstrators chanted.
Afghan authorities are bracing for more protests following news of Rahman's release and his request for asylum abroad.
Afghanistan's Reputation At Stake
Outgoing Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah says he hopes the controversy will not damage Afghanistan's image as a country trying to reform itself following the repressive Taliban regime.
But Adams, of Human Rights Watch, says Afghanistan's claim to be a moderate Islamic country already has been damaged by the case.
"The most important thing was for this case to never have been prosecuted in the first place," Adams said. "And the fact that it was has set the stage for people to feel outraged that it has been withdrawn. Now that the case went forward, the Afghan government realized that they were going to be in big trouble. So they stopped it. And I think right now they are trying to judge whether this is going to blow over or whether this is going to remain a long-term problem."
Some Islamic conservatives in Afghanistan have condemned the international outcry against the execution of Afghan citizens who convert to a religion other than Islam. The say Western governments are interfering in Afghanistan's domestic affairs and are corrupting Shari'a Islamic law.
But the Afghan Constitution is only partly based on Islamic law. It also requires the Afghan government to uphold the principles of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- and that document guarantees all individuals the right to freely practice the religion of their choice.