Afghan president seeks way to free Christian convert on trial

Sunday, March 26, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Under mounting foreign pressure, President Hamid Karzai searched on Saturday for a way to free an Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity without angering Muslim clerics who have called for him to be killed.

Karzai and several Cabinet ministers discussed the case of Abdul Rahman, who faces a possible death sentence for alleged apostasy, an official at Karzai's palace said. But she declined to comment on the outcome of the talks on Saturday.

Hours earlier, another official said Rahman "could be released soon." Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Pope Benedict XVI has sent a message to Karzai asking that the case be dropped, citing respect for religious freedom, the Vatican said Saturday.

Clerics protest

But clerics have questioned Karzai's authority to order Rahman's release and have warned of a possible revolt if he tries.

"The Quran is very clear and the words of our prophet are very clear. There can only be one outcome: death," said cleric Khoja Ahmad Sediqi, who is also a member of the Supreme Court. "If Karzai releases him, it will play into the hands of our enemy and there could be an uprising."

Rahman is being prosecuted under Afghanistan's Islamic laws for converting 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The case has put Karzai in an awkward position.

While the United States, Britain and other countries that prop up his government have demanded Rahman's release, the president would be reluctant to offend Islamic sensibilities at home or alienate religious conservatives who wield considerable power.

Diplomats have said the Afghan government is searching for a way to drop the case without inflaming tension here. Authorities said Rahman is suspected of being mentally ill and would undergo psychological examinations to see whether he is fit to stand trial.

Bush expressed alarm about the case this week, but Christian lobby groups have urged him to do more.

Meanwhile, a respected cleric in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Mohammed Qasim, said: "We don't care if the West drops its support for us. God will look after Afghanistan."

Shariah vs. constitution

Legal experts have said the case against Rahman is based on contradictory laws.

Afghanistan's constitution is based on Shariah law, which states that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be sentenced to death, according to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

But the constitution adds that "the state shall abide by the ... Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Article 18 of the declaration guarantees the freedom to worship and to "change" religion or belief.

Associated Press correspondent Amir Shah in Mazar-e-Sharif and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.

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