A trial of a man facing possible execution for converting to Christianity is being viewed as a test case for Afghanistan's new Constitution and fledgling democratic government.
According to reports, Abdul Rahman, 42, grew up as a Muslim in Afghanistan but converted to Christianity about 16 years ago while working with a Christian group that helped Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Afghanistan's new Constitution, ratified in January 2004 following 23 years of rule by the Taliban, a strict Islamic regime which fell in 2001, proclaims Islam as the religion of the state but says followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith "within the limits of the provisions of law."
The Constitution also declares, however, that no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam. Under Shari'a, or Islamic law, blasphemy and apostasy--converting from Islam to another religion--are forbidden, and some Muslims believe are punishable by death.
Religious conservatives in the United States, strong supporters of President Bush and the U.S.-led war on terror, expressed outrage at the trial and called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intervene.
"Is this the fruit of democracy?" asked Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship. "Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free? What have we accomplished for overthrowing the Taliban? This is the kind of thing we would expect from the Taliban, not from President Karzai and his freely elected democratic government."
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council called the fact that such a trial is even being held "an outrage" and said President Bush should immediately send Vice President Cheney or Secretary Rice to Kabul to "read Hamid Kharzai's government the riot act."
"Americans will not give their blood and treasure to prop up new Islamic fundamentalist regimes," Perkins said. "Democracy is more than purple thumbs."
Colson said he has supported the Bush administration's foreign policy because he believes the best way to stop Islamic oppression was by promoting democracy. "But if we can't guarantee fundamental religious freedoms in the countries where we establish democratic reforms, then the whole credibility of our foreign policy is thrown into serious question," he said.
Colson said an execution in the case would be a "devastating setback" to the cause of democracy and freedom.
According to reports, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said the U.S. is following the week-old trial "very closely."
"These issues rightfully should get resolved through the court system," McCormack said. "But they need to be resolved in a transparent (manner) and according to the rule of law."
An estimated 84 percent of the population of Afghanistan is Sunni Muslim and about 15 percent is Shi'a Muslim. Other religions, including Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews, make up less than 1 percent of the population. There also is a small, low-profile Christian community, in addition to small numbers of adherents of other religions.
Historically, the majority Sunni population discriminated against the minority Shi'a community. The new Constitution does not specifically mention Shari'a, but proclaims that the "religion of the state is the sacred religion of Islam" and that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."
In a 2005 conference the Rand Corporation suggested the Constitution use a formulation referring to the "basic principles of Islam," rather than reference only to "Shari'a" or to Islam, to avoid possible misunderstanding about whose version of Islam is the law.
The Constitution does not prohibit proselytizing, though officials widely view the practice as contrary to beliefs of Islam.
Iraq's Constitution, approved in a ratification vote last October, says, "No law may be passed that contradicts the constitution, the undisputed laws of Islam, or the principles of democracy," setting off fears by some that Iraq could end up with a Muslim theocracy like neighboring Iran.
Iraq's Catholic bishops expressed "grave concerns" about possible discrimination against Christians and unsuccessfully sought last-minute removal of the phrase.
The Iraqi Constitution guarantees "full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices," viewed by some as contradicting establishment of Islamic law.
Afghanistan's Constitution has similar ambiguity. While saying no law can contradict Islam, it also commits the state to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says everyone has "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," including the right to change religions or belief.
A recent State Department report said that despite Afghanistan's new Constitution and recent parliamentary elections, the first in more than 20 years, the country's human-rights record remains poor due to weak infrastructure, activity by insurgents and recovery from two decades of war.
Journalists have been arrested for publishing anti-Islamic views, specifically for reporting harsh punishments imposed on individuals accused of adultery and theft, as well as the right of Muslims to convert to other religions.
Two students were expelled from Herat University and later arrested for commenting on Islam during a religious debate in ways that classmates and a teacher found blasphemous. Following intervention by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the students were released from jail and housed, for security purposes, at various safe houses throughout the country.
According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, Rahman's arrest came amid a history of problems with his family. He left Afghanistan shortly after the birth of two daughters, now ages 12 and 13. He and his wife divorced. After converting to Christianity, he returned to Afghanistan about three years ago to live with his father and daughters.
According to the paper, Rahman's father said his son seemed mentally ill. He complained about Rahman's behavior to local police, not mentioning his religious conversion, who asked the family to work out its own problems.
In early February, however, Rahman reportedly showed up at the police station and complained about how his family was treating him. He announced he had become a Christian, insisting that local officers, who didn't want to get involved in religious issues, include that he converted to Christianity in a report filed with central police.
The judge hearing his case said Rahman could be executed unless he recants.
"We are not against any particular religion in the world," Judge Ansarullah Mawlavezada is quoted as saying. "But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law. It is an attack on Islam.... The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty."
Rahman said he has surrendered himself to God. "I believe in the Holy Spirit," he said. "I believe in Christ, and I am a Christian."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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