ROME, March 29 — The Afghan convert to Christianity who faced a possible death penalty in his homeland for renouncing Islam has arrived in Italy where he will be granted political asylum, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday.
Berlusconi said the man, Abdul Rahman, is in the hands of the country’s Interior Ministry, which is in charge of immigration.
“He is already in Italy. I think he arrived overnight,” Berlusconi told Italian reporters.
An Afghan court on Sunday dismissed the case against Rahman, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working in Pakistan. The government freed him on Monday.
Rahman’s possible execution brought worldwide appeals for clemency from Western governments, including the United States, and religious leaders. Washington has held up Afghanistan as an emerging model of democracy in an Islamic country. Both Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexy II, asked that he be spared.
The Afghan government has come under criticism for its actions. Five hundred Muslim clerics gathered in a mosque in the Afghan city of Qalad to protest Rahman’s release. The Afghan parliament also condemned his liberation as a breach of Islamic law. “We sent a letter and called the Interior Ministry and demanded they not allow Abdul Rahman to leave the country,” parliament speaker Yonus Qanooni told reporters in Kabul.
Acting on a tip from relatives, police arrested Rahman last month for being in possession of a Bible. He had been trying to win custody of two daughters from his estranged wife.
His arrival in Italy comes in the middle of a hotly contested election campaign in which part of Berlusconi’s coalition is running on an anti-immigration platform and stressing a defense of Western values against a purported onslaught of Muslim intolerance.
“I say that we are very glad to be able to welcome someone who has been so courageous,” Berlusconi said.
Rahman told the La Repubblica newspaper he was unrepentant. “I have done nothing to repent; I respect Afghan law as I respect Islam. But I chose to become a Christian, for myself, for my soul. It is not an offense.”