- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai searched yesterday for a way to free an Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity without angering Muslim clerics who have called for him to be killed.

Mr. Karzai and several Cabinet ministers discussed the case of Abdul Rahman, who faces a possible death sentence for apostasy, an official at Mr. Karzai’s palace said. But she declined to comment on the outcome of the talks yesterday.

Hours earlier, another official said Mr. Rahman “could be released soon.” Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.

Pope Benedict XVI has sent a message to Mr. Karzai asking that the case be dropped, citing respect for religious freedom, the Vatican said.

Afghan clerics have questioned Mr. Karzai’s authority to order Mr. Rahman’s release and have warned of a possible revolt if he tries.

“The Koran is very clear, and the words of our prophet are very clear. There can only be one outcome: death,” said cleric Khoja Ahmad Sediqi, who is also a member of the Supreme Court. “If Karzai releases him, it will play into the hands of our enemy, and there could be an uprising.”

Mr. Rahman is being prosecuted under Afghanistan’s Islamic laws for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The case has put Mr. Karzai in an awkward position.

While the United States, Britain and other countries that prop up his government have demanded Mr. Rahman’s release, the president would be reluctant to offend Islamic sensibilities at home or alienate religious hard-liners who wield considerable power.

The trial highlights a conflict of values between Islam and the West. Throughout much of the Muslim world, conversion from Islam to Christianity or any other religion is considered a capital offense. Anyone born to Muslim parents is automatically considered a Muslim and is not allowed to change their religion.

The pope’s message to Mr. Karzai came in a letter dated March 22 and written by the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement yesterday.

“I am certain, Mr. President, that dropping the case against Mr. Rahman would bestow great honor upon the Afghan people and would raise a chorus of admiration in the international community,” Cardinal Sodano said in the letter.

Meanwhile, a respected cleric in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Mohammed Qasim, said: “We don’t care if the West drops its support for us. God will look after Afghanistan.”

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