Afghan Christian convert is released
Had faced possible death penalty for faith change
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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- An Afghan man threatened with the death penalty for converting to Christianity has been released from prison, senior Western diplomats said Tuesday. His whereabouts were not immediately known.
Abdul Rahman had been held by Afghan authorities for his conversion from Islam to Christianity, punishable by death in Afghanistan, which follows Islamic law. Many Muslim clerics in the country called for his death, and said even if he were freed his life would be in danger.
Ahead of his release, Rahman requested asylum in a Western country, according to the United Nations. He has lived in Europe at times.
"Mr. Abdul Rahman has asked for asylum outside Afghanistan," a statement from the office of U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan said Monday. "We expect that this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case."
Local clerics had written to President Hamid Karzai, asking him to prevent Western nations from interfering with their religious practices and customs. (Watch how the case presented a religious dilemma to the Afghan government -- 2:43)
About 1,000 people demonstrated in Mazar-e-Sharif Monday, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to George Bush." (Full story)
Western nations, which have supported the new Afghan government monetarily, have been leaning on the government to free Rahman.
The Afghan Cabinet met on the matter Saturday, but results of that meeting were unknown.
Religious leaders have been meeting with Cabinet officials and with Karzai. Privately, people close to the government have said Karzai wanted to take personal charge of the issue.
U.S. troops overthrew Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, which had harbored the al Qaeda terrorist network, after al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. U.S. troops are still battling Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in parts of the country, which President Bush frequently touts as a success in the U.S.-led battle against terrorism.
Rahman, 41, reportedly converted 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international non-governmental organization. The information recently came to light during a civil case.
The case reflects a gulf between Afghanistan's conservative and clerical judiciary and the fledgling Western-backed democracy led by Karzai.
The judge in charge of the case is adamant that there can be no government involvement.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is adamant as well. The U.S. government and other Western nations basically hold the purse strings for Afghanistan, which needs billions in reconstruction money every year.
"We have a profound commitment to a person's fundamental freedom to choose how he or she worships and we must be true to that commitment," the embassy said in a statement. (Watch how the case of the 'reluctant martyr' is testing Afghanistan -- 2:56)
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN Sunday: "We've been very clear with the Afghan government that it has to understand the vital importance of religious freedom to democracy."
Journalist Tom Coghlan contributed to this report.
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