JOHN YDSTIE, host:
YDSTIE: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
In Silver Spring, Maryland this morning, members of the First Alliance Church welcomed the release of Abdul Rahman, the convert to Christianity who had been threatened with death in Afghanistan. Jeff King, president of a group called International Christian Concern, addressed the congregation.
Mr. JEFF KING (President, International Christian Concern): Because of people like you all over this country, because of Christians, a lot of just other people who are interested in human rights, they rose up and they said you know what? This is wrong, this is unjust and it's not right. This man needs to go free. America paid for Afghanistan with blood and with money and we didn't pay for Taliban-lite. We wanted freedom, religious freedom.
YDSTIE: Abdul Rahman had been facing trial and execution for changing his faith, but under diplomatic pressure, Afghan prosecutors asked the judge to halt proceedings because of questions over Rahman's mental competence. The judge dismissed the case, Italy offered Rahman asylum and he flew to Rome. Some evangelical Christians say the story of Abdul Rahman served as a wake-up call for them. Others say they were not surprised.
Dr. RICHARD LAND (President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention): For some of us, it became, it was not a wake-up call as much as the realization of the nightmare we knew would come.
YDSTIE: That's Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Land also sits on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He was appointed by President Bush in 2001.
I asked him why he wasn't surprised by the Rahman case.
Dr. LAND: In January 2004, Afghanistan adopted a new constitution. And though the constitution provides for the freedom of non-Muslim groups to exercise their faiths, it does not contain explicit protections for the right of freedom of religion or belief that would extend to every individual, particularly to individual Muslims.
So you have this oddity that people who are of another faith, if you're Jewish or if you're Hindu or if you're a Christian living in Afghanistan, you have more protections under the law for freedom of conscience than you do if you're a Muslim and you decide you want to change and not be a Muslim.
I do not believe that we have the right to try to impose upon the Iraqis or the Afghans the American system. They have the right to make that decision for themselves in their country. What they do not have a right to do is to trample the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two of the basic tenets have to do with freedom of conscience and freedom of practice.
YDSTIE: How much of a threat is this situation to support for the administration's policies in Afghanistan by evangelicals?
Dr. LAND: Well, I think it's not just American evangelicals. I said this at an open forum that the U.S. commission had on Afghanistan in January of 2003. I said, look, you need to understand something here: Americans across the board are not going to allow their Congress and allow their government to provide financial aid and to provide military aid and have American soldiers and American sailors and American airmen have their lives put at risk to defend a legal system that does not guarantee basic rights of conscience.
YDSTIE: But you're saying that this is not something that's likely to happen right now.
Dr. LAND: No.
YDSTIE: We're not seeing evangelicals losing faith in this democracy building because of this.
Dr. LAND: No, no. In fact, I think the exact opposite is the truth. Probably the segment of our population that is perhaps most overwhelmingly supportive of Mr. Bush's democracy building and freedom-enhancing foreign policy is the evangelical community.
YDSTIE: Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But not all evangelical leaders make the same political assessment.
Reverend RICHARD SIZIK (Vice President for Policy, National Association of Evangelicals): Evangelical support for the President's war is on the razor's edge, it's at a tipping point; and this is the President's base.
YDSTIE: Reverend Richard Sizik is vice president for policy at the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 30 million Christians.
Reverend SIZIK: The evangelicals have become, as friend Nick Kristof in the New York Times says, the new internationalists. So we are that community, more than any other religious community, that today is arguing, you see, for democracy, religious freedom and human rights around the world. A lot of evangelicals have struggled with the problem of 19 Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East alone, wondered and prayed for decades what we do. And some, many, some of our community decided early on that we would support the President's policies because it might provide the shock therapy, whatever it would take, you see, to change these dictatorships.
Now if in fact as a result of this effort, three years now, for example, in Iraq, we're not going to have that kind of freedom for people to choose, then, well, that's a real torpedo in the belly of the President's policies.
YDSTIE: Which also, I suppose, could have implications for the midterm elections, for the elections coming up in November.
Reverend SIZIK: Oh, no doubt about it. The Iraq policy and even Afghanistan, you see, that a few months ago was perceived as one is no longer one. You see IEDs and others going off, killing soldiers presently in Afghanistan. So we're back in a difficult circumstance there. And if in fact the Afghan constitution doesn't guarantee a religious freedom that we believe in and ought to be guaranteeing as a result of our efforts there, then wow, watch out.
YDSTIE: Let me ask you if you would agree with a statement from Chuck Colsen, the evangelical preacher and leader, that the whole credibility of our foreign policy has been thrown into serious question by this Abdul Rahman case?
Reverend SIZIK: Oh, I think so. It's very symbolic. It's the crystallizing of a problem that is the underbelly of this whole foreign policy, democracy, religious freedom and human rights, as the President has articulated it. And you see, our American officials don't want to put too fine a point on this issue, because they know well they could lose. And if they lose the argument, they know evangelicals will desert 'em.
YDSTIE: Richard Sizik is vice president for policy of the National Association of evangelicals. Thank you very much.
Reverend SIZIK: Thank you, John.
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