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BosNewsLife (03/30/06) – Religious rights investigators warned Thursday, March 30, that thousands of people in Afghanistan could face execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, a day after Italy granted asylum to a Christian convert.

US-based Christian Freedom International (CFI), which investigates cases of alleged persecution of Christians, said Abdul Rahman, who faced the death penalty for “abandoning Islam,” is just one “of at least 10,000” converts in Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear on what information the figure of 10,000 was based, but CFI is known to have close contacts with persecuted indivuals and churches in key areas of the world. The group stressed that many of these “new Christians live in secret” for fear they may be killed at a time when tensions are rising.

Encouraged by Muslim clerics, Afghans held protests in several cities of Afghanistan this week, shouting anti-Western slogans and demanding the killing of Rahman. Italian Prime Minister Minister Silvio Berlusconi confirmed Wednesday, March 29. that the 41-year old Rahman arrived in Italy and was “being looked after by the interior ministry.”

CARRYING BIBLE

Rahman said he became a Christian 16 years ago at age 25 while working as a medical aid worker for Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan . He was jailed this month when police discovered he was a Christian and carried a Bible during questiong over his demands to gain custody over his teenage daughters.

He was accussed of “abandoning Islam”, which carries the death penalty under Afghanistan ‘s strict laws, but was released from prison Tuesday, March 28, amid mounting international pressure.

CFI’s President Jim Jacobson told BosNewsLife that while his organization is “extremely pleased that Rahman’s life was spared, unfortunately, so many other apostasy cases, just like Rahman’s go unnoticed. His case was literally the tip of the iceberg.”

Jacobson, a former White House official, said he was disappointed that the US government did not offer Rahman asylum. “We applaud Italy for standing up for persecuted Christians in Afghanistan , but regret the fact that the United States did not offer asylum protection for Rahman,” he added.

STRONG MESSAGE

“Offering asylum would have sent a strong message to the government and people of Afghanistan that America will not tolerate the persecution of minority Christians, especially in a country we liberated from the Taliban,” Jacobson stressed.

He claimed that America is “becoming an extremely difficult place for persecuted Christians to be granted asylum. There are thousands of Christians from Burma awaiting asylum protection, but so far they are being turned away.”

Jacobson added that Christian rights activists had “a long way to go to change the attitude in Washington from being hostile toward legitimate persecuted Christian asylum seekers.”

American officials have denied they are indifferent about persecution of Christians, and United States President George W. Bush was among key Western leaders demanding the release of Rahman.