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Afghani Christian Faces Death Penalty for Conversion

Concept of Religious Freedom is at Stake

Four years after the U.S. led a coalition to liberate Afghanistan from the Islamic-fundamentalist dictatorship of the Taliban, an Afghani Christian finds himself on trial for his faith in the nation's capital of Kabul .

If convicted, he could face a death sentence for his "crime."

The Afghani, 41-year-old Abdul Rahman, was arrested last month after his family denounced him for rejecting Islam and becoming a Christian. His trial started Thursday, according to The Associated Press, which interviewed the judge in the case, Judge Ansarullah Mawlavezada.

Rahman reportedly "confessed" that he converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago while working for a Christian group. He served as a medical-aid worker helping Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Family Research Council ( FRC ) President Tony Perkins is calling on American leaders to intervene to save Rahman.

"That there should even be such a trial is an outrage," he said. "How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by radical Islamists who kill Christians?"

Perkins has sent letters on Rahman's behalf to President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

The trial, Perkins added, is a flagrant violation of Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the current Afghan government even incorporated into its constitution.

"Democracy is more than purple thumbs," he said — a reference to how Afghanis were marked after voting in the country's first real election.

"Americans will not give their blood and treasure to prop up new Islamic-fundamentalist regimes. Religious freedom is not just an important element of democracy; it is its cornerstone. Religious persecution leads inevitably to political tyranny. Five hundred years of history confirm this.

"Americans have not given their lives so that Christians can be put to death."

Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs said trials for those who convert to Christianity are, sadly, not new in Muslim nations. The basic problem in this case is Afghanistan 's new constitution.

"That constitution, in one part, says that followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith, and they are free to practice their faith in the way they see fit," Nettleton said. "But it also says in the constitution that the overarching authority is Islamic law, and Islamic law says, 'If you leave Islam, you are an apostate, and you should be killed.' "

Dr. Walid Phares, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and an expert on terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, agreed there have been many cases in Saudi Arabia , Egypt and Pakistan over the last 30 years similar to what is happening in Afghanistan .

Shariah, or Islamic law, has banned conversion of Muslims to non-Muslim religions since the seventh century, Phares said. The radical fringe of Islam is pushing for the worldwide implementation of Shariah, although not all Muslim nations actually enforce the conversion provision.

"When the fundamentalists are either in charge of the government, or very influential in a particular Muslim country, it puts a lot of pressure on the government," Phares told CitizenLink.

Nettleton, meanwhile, said the Afghani court — pressed by fundamentalists on one side and Western nations on the other — may be looking for a way to save face. News sources have reported the judge is close to ruling that Rahman is mentally unstable.

"My understanding is that Abdul Rahman has in the past suffered from clinical depression," Nettleton said. "That is providing the Afghan legal system with a way to save face and make this case go away.

"We know that there have been questions asked by governments around the world about this case, about the human-rights aspect of it, and I think that if they can say that he was not mentally fit to stand trial, they can say to the world, 'Yes we made the case go away and he's free.' They can also say to the Islamic hard-liners, 'We put him on trial, but he wasn't fit to stand trial.' They can then say to both sides, 'See, we're doing what you want.' "

Phares, meanwhile, said it is important for the West to take a hard line.

"The government of Afghanistan exists because of an action and the continuous protection of the United States and the international coalition forces," he said. "For this particular case, it is very important for NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the State Department and American leaders to talk to the government of President Hamid Karzai, and tell them, 'OK, you've done your show with Shariah, but the international community is watching you. You are not the Taliban — you cannot be the Taliban.' "

There are an estimated 1,000 born-again Christians in Afghanistan — none of whom has legal standing under the country's code of law.


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