Thursday, March 23, 2006

WHEELING, W. Va. — President Bush yesterday said he was “deeply” troubled by the trial in Afghanistan of a Christian who could face execution for converting from Islam and vowed to pressure the Afghan government on the matter.

“It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another,” Mr. Bush said.

Abdul Rahman could face the death penalty for rejecting Islam. He converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working for a Christian aid organization in Pakistan, but it just came to light recently during a custody battle over his two children.

While nations such as Italy and Germany lodged strong protests earlier this week against the trial, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday was more tepid, calling the case a matter for Afghan authorities.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush took a much firmer stance.

“We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values,” he said.

It appeared yesterday that Afghanistan was looking for a way out of the international furor over the matter. The Associated Press, reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, quoted a prosecutor as saying Mr. Rahman may be mentally unfit for trial.

“We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn’t talk like a normal person,” said the prosecutor, Sarinwal Zamari, while the AP also quoted a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai as saying that Mr. Rahman will have an exam and that if he is deemed unfit, the case against him would be dropped.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah on Tuesday said that he understood American concerns but that the matterwas a legal one and the government “has nothing to do with it.”

Prosecutors said the case against Mr. Rahman would be dropped if he converted back to Islam, but he has refused. The state-sponsored Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has said Mr. Rahman violated Islamic law by converting to another religion and should be punished.

The trial has become a cause for Christians worldwide and for conservative groups in the United States, who demanded that the U.S. government intervene.

“Americans have not given their lives so that Christians can be put to death,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, also joined the call for Mr. Rahman to be released.

“Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” the group said.

The trial could be a stumbling block for Mr. Bush, who is traveling across the U.S. arguing that freedom and democracy are universal values and modern civil societies can rise from formerly oppressed Middle Eastern nations.

He has talked about allowing nations to form democracies in their own style, and often points to Japan’s development of a “Japanese-style democracy” after World War II as a model.

But an Afghanistan-style democracy that includes trials of Christian converts is unacceptable to Mr. Bush’s supporters.

“How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by radical Islamists who kill Christians?” Mr. Perkins said.

Speaking in Wheeling at a town-hall-style event yesterday, Mr. Bush raised the issue himself, saying he was “deeply troubled.”

But a firefighter in the audience challenged Mr. Bush to go further and reminded him that hundreds of firefighters died in the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, was based in Afghanistan with the permission of the ruling Taliban.

“Do you have an army of sociologists to go over there and change that country, or are you hoping that in a couple decades that we can change the mind-set over there?” the firefighter asked.

“We can solve this problem by working closely with the government that we’ve got contacts with — and will,” Mr. Bush said. “We’ll deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religion.”

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