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Afghan Religion Case Poses Dilemma for New Government


In Afghanistan, a man is facing trial and possible imprisonment, or even execution, for converting from Islam to Christianity. The case has sparked calls from world leaders for the man's release, including from countries that helped oust the Taleban and rebuild the country. The case puts President Hamid Karzai in an awkward position.

Abdur Rahman's case has sparked outrage among many governments, including those that helped free Afghanistan from the oppressive rule of the Taleban and contributed to the country's rebuilding. President Bush, himself a committed Christian, said he found the case deeply troubling. Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Friday became the latest world leader to condemn the case, calling it appalling.

Conservative Afghan religious leaders have fired back, telling the West to, essentially, mind its own business.

Caught in the middle is President Karzai, who came to office with strong international backing, and has pledged to make Afghanistan a modern state, but must still deal with a very traditional, tribal Islamic society.

Abdur Rahman says he converted to Christianity 16 years ago, while working for a Christian aid organization helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He lived in Germany until recently. When he returned, his family denounced him as an apostate.

Alexander Thier, senior law advisor at the U.S. Institute for Peace, says the case underscores the clash between the traditional and modern in Afghanistan. "This case is really a very important case, because it has really focused very specifically on what is a fundamental tension in the Afghan constitution, and within Afghan society,” he said, “the tension between modernization and democracy, on one hand, and Afghanistan being still a very conservative Islamic society."

U.S. officials, like Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, say they believe Rahman is protected by Afghanistan's constitution. "The Afghan constitution, as we understand it, also provides for freedom of religion," said Burns.

But Alexander Thier, who was an international legal advisor in Kabul to the commission that wrote Afghanistan's constitution, says that is not entirely clear. There are loopholes in the constitution, he says, that allow judges to apply Sharia, or Islamic law, rather than civil law to any crime not listed in the criminal code - and apostasy is not in the code.

"On the legal side, Afghanistan's constitution does have some contradictions built into it,” he noted. “On the one hand, it does appear that the Afghan constitution, in some ways, protects the freedom of religion. On the other hand, the Afghan constitution has many articles, which essentially say that Afghan judges in the judicial system will have the power to interpret the law according to their interpretation of Islamic law."

Thier says President Karzai is in a very difficult position of trying not to offend domestic sensibilities or international opinion. "If, in the eyes of many people, this is a crime, if Karzai is seen to bow to international pressure, he is perceived as a puppet, or as weak,” he explained. “At the same time, the international community clearly cannot stand for people being killed for their religious beliefs."

Most analysts believe a face-saving formula will be found, and say it is very unlikely Rahman will be executed. Some have suggested he might be declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

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