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Death could await Christian convert

U.S. lawmaker: Christian-conversion prosecution 'outrageous'

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Afghanistan
Christianity
Abdul Rahman
Capital Punishment

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the days of the Taliban, those promoting Christianity in Afghanistan could be arrested and those converting from Islam could be tortured and publicly executed.

That was supposed to change after U.S.-led forces ousted the oppressive, fundamentalist regime, but the case of 41-year-old Abdul Rahman has many Western nations wondering if Afghanistan is regressing.

Rahman, a father of two, was arrested last week and is now awaiting trial for rejecting Islam. He told local police, whom he approached on an unrelated matter, that he had converted to Christianity. Reports say he was carrying a Bible at the time.

"They want to sentence me to death, and I accept it," Rahman told reporters last week, "but I am not a deserter and not an infidel."

The Afghan constitution, which is based on Sharia, or Islamic law, says that apostates can receive the death penalty. (Watch how Rahman's case could cast doubts on Afghanistan's commitment to democracy -- 1:17)

Afghanistan's population is 80 percent Sunni Muslim and 19 percent Shiite Muslim, according to the CIA. The other 1 percent of the population is classified as "other."

U.S.: Freedom to worship part of democracy

Rahman's case raises thorny issues between Afghanistan and its Western allies, and U.S. officials this week made certain that Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is in Washington for talks on the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership, understood their qualms.

"We have underscored also to Foreign Minister Abdullah that we believe that tolerance and freedom of worship are important elements of any democracy," U.S. State Department spokesman Scott McCormack told reporters Tuesday. "We urge the Afghan government to conduct any legal proceedings in a transparent and fair manner."

Abdullah was supposed to talk to reporters Tuesday about talks for the strategic partnership. Instead, Abdullah was bombarded with questions about the Rahman case.

"I know that it is a very sensitive issue and we know the concerns of the American people," Abdullah said, adding that the Afghan Embassy in Washington had received "hundreds of messages" on the issue.

He further said that the Afghan government had nothing to do with the case.

"But I hope that through our constitutional process, there will be a satisfactory result," he said.

Rahman's case illustrates a split over the interpretation of the Afghan constitution, which calls for religious freedom while stating that Muslims who reject Islam can be executed.

Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs, said he understands the complexities of the case and promised the United States would respect Afghan sovereignty. However, he said, Afghans should be free to choose their own religion, and he believes the nation's constitution supports that.

"We hope the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld," Burns said. "If he has the right of freedom of religion, that ought to be respected."

Rahman's case could force Afghan President Hamid Karzai into the undesirable position of mediating the matter. Karzai has to placate an ever-restless populace in turbulent post-war Afghanistan, but at the same time, he needs Western assistance to stave off the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Allies indignant

The U.S. has 23,000 troops in the country; Germany has 2,700. Canada has 2,300 stationed there, and Italy has 1,775, according to Reuters.

All four nations have expressed displeasure over the situation, some even saying that it is intolerable that soldiers of all faiths die to protect a country threatening to kill its own for converting to Christianity.

Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga wrote a letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, urging him to withdraw Italian troops from Afghanistan unless Kabul guarantees Rahman's safety, Reuters reported.

"It is not acceptable that our soldiers should put themselves at risk or even sacrifice their lives for a fundamentalist, illiberal regime," Cossiga wrote.

Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, wrote a letter to Karzai asking him to intervene and uphold "core democratic principles and fundamental human rights."

"In a country where soldiers from all faiths, including Christianity, are dying in defense of your government, I find it outrageous that Mr. Rahman is being prosecuted and facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity," Lantos wrote.

One German official promised to intervene if necessary. Another, Development Minister Heide Wieczorek-Zeul, said, "We will do everything possible to save the life of Abdul Rahman," according to Reuters.

Canada echoed that sentiment, saying human rights in Afghanistan was a top priority and that "Canada will continue to encourage the Afghan government to adhere to its human rights obligations," foreign ministry spokeswoman Pamela Greenwell told Reuters.

CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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