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Compass (03/22/06) – An avalanche of media coverage of an Afghan man facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity has apparently sparked the arrest and deepening harassment of other Afghan Christians in the ultra-conservative Muslim country.

Authorities arrested Abdul Rahman, 41, last month for apostasy, a capital offense under strict Islamic laws still in place in Afghanistan , which four years ago was wrested from the Taliban regime’s hard-line Islamist control.

During the past few days, Compass has confirmed the arrest of two other Afghan Christians elsewhere in the country. Because of the sensitive situation, local sources requested that the location of the jailed converts be withheld.

This past weekend, one young Afghan convert to Christianity was beaten severely outside his home by a group of six men, who finally knocked him unconscious with a hard blow to his temple. He woke up in the hospital two hours later but was discharged before morning.

“Our brother remains steadfast, despite the ostracism and beatings,” one of his friends said.

Several other Afghan Christians have been subjected to police raids on their homes and places of work in the past month, as well as to telephone threats.

First Known Apostasy Case

Rahman was put on trial in Kabul last week for the “crime” of converting from Islam to Christianity and faces the death penalty for refusing to return to the Muslim faith.

But news of his case did not break until March 16, when Ariana TV announced it. According to the TV newscaster, Rahman was asked in court, “Do you confess that you have apostacized from Islam?” The defendant answered, “No, I am not an apostate. I believe in God.”

He was then questioned, “Do you believe in the Quran?” Rahman responded, “I believe in the New Testament, and I love Jesus Christ.”

Although Islamist militants have captured and murdered at least five Afghan Christians in the past two years for abandoning Islam, Rahman’s case is the local judiciary’s first known prosecution case for apostasy in recent decades.

During Rahman’s initial hearing before the head judge of Kabul ’s Primary Court, he testified that he had become a Christian 16 years ago, while working with a Christian relief organization in the Pakistani city of Peshawar , near the Afghan border.

But after his conversion, Rahman’s wife divorced him, so their two infant daughters were taken back to Afghanistan , where they have been raised by their paternal grandparents.

Soon afterwards Rahman left Pakistan , and over the next few years he managed to enter several European countries. Although he attempted to apply for asylum, he was never able to obtain legal immigration status. After nine years, many of them in European detention centers because he had no valid papers, he was finally deported back to Afghanistan in 2002.

Back in Kabul , Rahman eventually contacted his family. In recent months, he tried repeatedly to regain custody of his daughters, now 13 and 14 years of age.

“The father finally went to the police in order to stop Abdul from contacting him, by telling them that Abdul converted to Christianity,” a Kabul source said. He was promptly taken into custody, interrogated and sent to jail to await trial.

Although Rahman is allowed to have a defense lawyer, he has declined, insisting he can defend himself. But according to Christian sources in Kabul , the convert suffers from recurring mental instability, which could alter the Islamic court’s handling of his case.

Rahman is reportedly incarcerated with 50 other prisoners in a cell designed for 15 in Kabul ’s Central Prison, where members of the press have been denied access to him. Since he is estranged from his family, and prisoners are traditionally dependent upon food rations supplied by their families, it is unclear whether he is being fed regularly.

Labeled a ‘Cancer’

If Rahman is found guilty of apostasy and given the death penalty, as demanded by prosecutor Abdul Wasi, Afghan law permits him two final appeals – first to the provincial court, and then the Supreme Court.

Calling Rahman a “traitor to Islam,” Wasi told the court he was “like a cancer inside Afghanistan .”

Wasi told the Associated Press (AP) that when he offered to drop all the charges against Rahman if he returned to Islam, the defendant refused. “He said he was a Christian and would always remain one,” Wasi said.

“We are Muslims, and becoming a Christian is against our laws,” the prosecutor concluded. “He must get the death penalty.”

Rahman is being tried by Judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada, who has said he would issue a verdict on the case within two months.

“We are not against any particular religion in the world,” the judge told the AP on March 19. “But in Afghanistan , this sort of thing is against the law. It is an attack on Islam.”

On March 20, however, Judge Mawlavizada told the British Broadcasting Corporation that Rahman’s mental state would be considered first, “before he was dealt with under sharia [Islamic] law.”

President Hamid Karzai’s office has said the president will not intervene in the case. But today a religious adviser to Karzai announced that Rahman would be given psychological tests.

“Doctors must examine him,” Moayuddin Baluch told the AP. “If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped.”

Although the Afghan government is clearly anxious to resolve Rahman’s case in order to satisfy international criticisms, the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has reportedly called for Rahman to be punished, insisting that he had “clearly violated Islamic law.”

Rahman’s plight dramatizes the judicial paradox within Afghanistan ’s new constitution, ratified in January 2004. Although it guarantees freedom of religion to non-Muslims, it also prohibits laws that are “contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

At the same time, the constitution obliges the state to abide by the treaties and conventions it has signed, which include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In outlining freedoms of thought, conscience and religion, Article 18 of this convention explicitly guarantees “freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief.”

Less than 1 percent of the Afghan population is non-Muslim, mostly Hindus and Sikhs. Among the millions of Afghans living abroad during recent decades of conflict in their homeland, some have openly declared themselves Christians. But no churches exist inside Afghanistan , and local converts to Christianity fear retribution if they declare their faith.


Arrest of Convert Christian Ignites International Outcry

Before he was dropped from the Afghan government’s cabinet today, reporters grilled Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah yesterday (March 21) about his country’s controversial “apostasy” case during a Washington, D.C. press conference focusing on this week’s U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership talks in Washington.

Acknowledging that the Afghan Embassy in Washington had received hundreds of messages since the trial of Afghan Christian Abdul Rahman was made public last week, Abdullah insisted that his government had nothing to do with the case.

Rahman, who is charged with abandoning Islam 16 years ago, is liable for execution under Afghanistan ’s Islamic law statutes.

“I know that it is a very sensitive issue and we know the concerns of the American people,” Abdullah said. “But I hope that through our constitutional process, there will be a satisfactory result.”

Speaking at Abdullah’s side, Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state of political affairs, sidestepped direct U.S. interference in Afghan sovereignty while admitting, “… from an American point of view, people should be free to choose their own religion.”

Two days ago, the U.S. State Department had confirmed that the United States was “following closely” the trial proceedings, emphasizing that there were “differing interpretations” of the current Afghan constitution within the country. The Afghan authorities were being urged to “conduct this trial … in as transparent a manner as possible,” the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Western allies in the international coalition of troops deployed in Afghanistan have expressed outrage and point-blank condemnation of the trial over the past three days.

Lawmakers and leaders in Italy and Germany declared pointedly that it was “intolerable” that soldiers of all faiths should die to protect a country threatening to kill its own citizens for converting to Christianity. Canada confirmed that it was also “closely watching” the case, while the German Foreign Minister said he viewed it with “great concern.”

“If Afghanistan does not quickly modernize its legal system,” German opposition politician Rainer Bruderle told the daily Bild today, “ Germany must rethink its help for Afghanistan .”

After the Italian government summoned the Afghan ambassador to Rome yesterday to discuss Rahman’s case, a Foreign Ministry statement pledged that Italy would “move at the highest level … to prevent something which is incompatible with the defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

From the British Parliament, Nick Harvey of the Liberal Democrats remarked, “To prosecute or even kill someone for having a different faith is unacceptable.” Labour Member of Parliament Alan Simpson agreed, declaring in a statement to The Times in London , “This absurdity must stop.”

A strong protest was also lodged before the European Parliament by Dr. Charles Tannock, who questioned the European Union’s generous funding of a country “which appears to ignore its international legal obligations, and apparently is still ruled by a fundamentalist version of Islamic sharia law.” The parliamentarian called for a plea of clemency to be issued by the EU, requesting Afghanistan to exile Rahman to another country where his religious freedom would be guaranteed.

But one Afghan cabinet official has reacted sharply to the German government’s blunt criticism of the trial, telling the Neue Osnabrueceker Zeitung newspaper that “the heated and emotional reaction of German politicians is exaggerated and has caused annoyance among Afghans.”

Afghan Economy Minister Amin Farhang claimed that although “fanatics demand the death penalty in such cases,” such a sentence was unlikely against Rahman.