Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghan, was a Muslim for 25 years before he began working for an international Christian group helping his fellow countrymen in Pakistan. Within a couple of years he had converted to Christianity.
Fourteen years later, the decision may cost him his life.
After four years in Peshawar Mr Rahman spent the next nine in Germany. His problems began when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 and tried to recover his two daughters, now aged 13 and 14, who were living with his parents in Kabul.
His parents refused to return them. The matter went to the police, with the parents complaining that their son had become violent. Mr Rahman’s father then denounced him as a convert. Mr Rahman was promptly arrested, and found to possess a Bible. He now languishes in Kabul central prison and will, if convicted of an “attack on Islam”, face the death penalty under Afghanistan’s new constitution.
Mr Rahman’s case is shaping up as a trial of strength between Afghanistan’s religious conservatives and reformers. “The constitution says Islam is the religion of Afghanistan, yet it also mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 18 specifically forbids this kind of recourse,” one human rights expert said in Kabul last night. “It really highlights the problem the judiciary faces.”
News of his plight is likely to cause outrage in predominantly Christian countries such as Britain and America, whose troops are fighting to free Afghanistan from the religious zealotry of the Taleban.
The Bishop of Rochester, the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, who leads the Church of England’s dialogue with Islam, told The Times: “I’m amazed that the constitution that has been agreed in post-Taleban Aghanistan under the very eyes of the international community should allow this kind of thing to take place — for a person to be arrested for having been converted 14 years ago and to be threatened with execution simply for his beliefs.
“The British Army in Afghanistan is losing soldiers there through injury and death. Is the Army there to uphold this kind of thing? I thought we were there to promote democracy and freedom.”
Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, told The Times: “We are asked to believe that in Afghanistan we are defending a more secular and democratic state when in fact the likes of Abdul Rahman face the death penalty. What sort of democracy are we defending? All reports suggest that the Taleban are coming in through the back door and their views through the front door. Hamid Karzai (the Afghan President) needs to be told that this absurdity must stop.”
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats’ defence spokesman, said: “This is a horrifying situation and it makes a mockery of the efforts we are making to bring Afghanistan back into the international community. We have committed many soldiers to the situation in Afghanistan, many of whom will be committed Christians; we have spent huge amounts of money and committed resources and so I think we can take a strong moral position on this and explain to the Afghan authorities that to prosecute or even kill someone for having a different faith is unacceptable.”
Mr Rahman is being prosecuted for an attack on Islam, the punishment for which, under the draft constitution established in 2004, is death.
“The Attorney-General is emphasising he should be hung,” Judge Alhaj Ansarullah Mawlawy Zada, who will be trying his case, told The Times. “It is a crime to convert to Christianity from Islam. He is teasing and insulting his family by converting. In your country (Britain) two women can marry; that is very strange. In this country we have the perfect constitution, it is Islamic law and it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished.”
The prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, has said that he would drop charges if Mr Rahman converted back to Islam, but he has so far refused to do so.
“He would be forgiven if he changed back, but he said he was a Christian and would always remain one . . . We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty.” In the first hearing of Mr Rahman’s case, Judge Zada, the head of the Primary Court, said that a verdict would be reached within two months.
If the judge imposes the death penalty, Mr Rahman will still have two avenues of appeal under Afghan law — the Provincial Court and the Supreme Court. The death penalty has to be ratified by President Karzai.
Prison authorities refused repeated requests for Mr Rahman to be interviewed, but a cellmate, Sayad Miakhel, told The Times: “He is standing by his words; he will not become a Muslim again. He has been a Christian for over 14 years. It is what he believes in . . . ” Mr Miakhel, 30, said that conditions in the prison were basic, with 50 men to a cell built for 15. “Most prisoners have food brought to them by their families, but none of Abdul’s family have been to visit. I’m not sure how he is eating.
“He seems depressed. He keeps looking up to the sky, to God,” said Mr Miakhel.
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Two pastors murdered in Hyderabad in May last year
Kim Tae Jin was discovered with a Bible in his belongings in 1986 and sent to a forced labour camp where he suffered violence and starvation
Any disparagement of the Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death
1,700 evangelical Christians imprisoned indefinitely for being part of what are deemed illegal churches
Somali Christians seen as enemies of the State. Since end of the dictatorship in 1991 many have been attacked and killed
Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide