Christian Convert Case Confounds Afghan Government

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pressing the president of Afghanistan to respect the rights of a man who's on trial for converting to Christianity. But senior Muslim clerics warn that if their government frees 41-year-old Abdul Rahman, they'll incite people to "pull him into pieces." Renee Montagne talks with the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

I'm Renee Montagne.

The United States is increasing pressure on the government in Afghanistan to resolve the case of a man who converted from Islam to Christianity.

41-year-old Abdul Rahman is on trial and faces the death penalty under Afghanistan's Islamic laws.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters she called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, to urge what she called a favorable resolution as soon as possible.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State): And we've raised it in the strongest possible terms to make clear that it is our great hope and desire that Afghanistan will reaffirm what is already in its constitution, that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights will be respected.

MONTAGNE: We go now to BBC report Sanjoy Majumder, in Kabul.

Hello.

Mr. SANJOY MAJUMDER (reporter, BBC): Good morning from Kabul.

MONTAGNE: This case brings Karzai into a difficult position under pressure from not just the U.S., but Canada and Europe. And even as he faces demands by Afghanistan's religious conservatives not to interfere.

Mr. MAJUMDER: Yes, that's right. It's a very difficult situation for the president. On the one hand he has his western allies, countries which have backed his government for the past few years, countries which are investing heavily in Afghanistan, and which are trying to create a country which is moderate, that is outward looking, and that is a democracy.

On the other hand, he has religious conservatives, quite a few of them, in the judiciary in his government, as well as outside government, who basically want to see a country that is deeply religious, that is faithful to Islam, and under which Islamic law is paramount. And there can be nothing challenging this.

It's a difficult few days for the president. And the first sign of the pressure he's under is perhaps the fact that he hasn't as yet publicly responded either to the criticism from the west or indeed from the criticism domestically.

MONTAGNE: Now, Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity, as we understand it, more than a decade ago. Why is he being tried now?

Mr. MAJUMDER: Well, as it so happens, the case has sort of crept up in the government. Abdul Rahman, as you know, converted to Christianity almost 16 years ago when he was in Germany. And he's been living mostly in Pakistan, where he was working among Afghan refugee groups who had fled the fighting back home.

He only returned to Afghanistan very recently, and this case was actually brought upon him by his own family. And we understand it has a lot to do with a child custody case.

So it's a case that's been brought up not by the religious clerics, not by members of government, but actually his own family. And that's what's put the government in a bind, because it's not something that they're had a direct hand in. And as many of them are saying privately, its difficult for them to do anything other than let the law take its course.

MONTAGNE: Although the prosecutor in the case has suggested that Rahman could have mental problems, is that possibly an out for the government?

Mr. MAJUMDER: It definitely looks like that. The prosecutor did, as you say, a couple of days ago bring up the fact that Rahman may be unfit for trial. And even under Islamic Sharial law, that would mean the charges against him would be dropped and he would be let off.

It's something that many people think is the only way out for the government, for the prosecution as well as the judges. But if the government is seen as doing this under pressure from the west, or doing anything that is seen as caving in to demands from the United States, from Canada and from other Western governments, it may be quite difficult for them to convince the Afghan public, if you will, as well as some of the clerics that this was something they did with any amount of conviction.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

BBC report Sanjoy Majumder speaking from Kabul.

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