Tuesday, March 28, 2006

An Afghan man who faced a death sentence for converting to Christianity was released late last night from jail in Kabul. U.S. and U.N. officials had said earlier they expected he would seek asylum abroad.

Abdul Rahman was released from the high-security Policharki prison on the outskirts of Kabul, Deputy Attorney General Mohammed Eshak Aloko told the Associated Press.

“We issued a letter saying he was mentally unfit to stand trial, so he has been released,” he said. “I don’t know where he is now.”

A Christian monitoring group reported that there have been new fundamentalist Muslim attacks on Christians in Afghanistan in the wake of the international uproar over the case of Abdul Rahman, who was arrested last month for apostasy for leaving Islam for Christianity 16 years ago.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had said earlier that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had been told that Mr. Rahman would be released after the Afghan government found “substantial evidentiary problems” with the prosecution’s case.

“We look forward to his release, and certainly his physical well-being is an important issue to us,” he said.

But the decision to drop the case sparked at least one protest in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and Mr. Rahman has been held since late last week in a maximum-security prison because officials feared for his safety at a more exposed location.

U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Kabul that Mr. Rahman had already appealed for asylum in an unnamed country. The United Nations had been working with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to ease the standoff.

“Mr. Rahman has asked for asylum outside the country,” Mr. Edwards said. “We expect this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case.”

The United States, Germany, Italy, Australia and the Vatican were among those appealing for Mr. Rahman in recent days.

Despite a long tradition in Islam of harsh treatment for those who leave the faith, Muslim scholars said they did not expect a wave of similar apostasy cases in light of the uproar over Mr. Rahman. Mr. Rahman was only charged after he told investigators he was a Christian in the middle of a legal battle with his ex-wife over the custody of their two daughters.

But Compass, a California-based news service that tracks persecution of Christians around the world, reported that two other Afghan Christians had been arrested in recent days, while others had been subjected to beatings and police raids.

The prosecution posed an excruciating problem for the fledgling Karzai government, which is dependent on foreign troops and foreign aid to survive. But Islamic hard-liners in the overwhelmingly Muslim country argued that Islamic tradition demands a harsh penalty for apostasy.

The Afghan Constitution shows the balancing act facing Mr. Karzai, whose own oath of office calls on him to “obey and protect the holy religion of Islam.”

The constitution’s preamble calls for the government to adhere to Islam, while also observing U.N. and international human rights declarations guaranteeing freedom of religion.

The State Department declined comment on whether Mr. Rahman might apply for asylum in the United States. Mr. McCormack said that “any potential onward travel” for the defendant was “being handled as a private matter.”

The case has sparked a heated debate among Muslim scholars, with both sides citing Koran verses to support their position.

On the Qatar-based Web site Islam Online, leading Islamic theologian Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi said that all leading Islamic traditions agree that “the apostate is to be punished.”

But, he added, “they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing, meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death.”

Because Allah is considered by many Muslims to be the principal source of all authority, including political legitimacy, rejecting Islam can be seen as analogous to treason in a modern Western state.

But Abed Jlelati, a member of the board of the U.S.-based Free Muslim Coalition, said the Rahman death sentence was “absurd and disgusting,” insisting the hard-line interpretation contradicts the prophet Muhammad’s edict that “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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