KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (BosNewsLife) — An Afghan man faced an uncertain future behind bars Monday, March 20, after a judge told him he may be executed for converting from Islam to Christianity.
41-year old Abdul Rahman was arrested last month after his family went to the police and accused him of becoming a Christian, Judge Ansarullah Mawlavezada told the Associated Press (AP) news agency.
Such a conversion would violate the country's Islamic laws. Rahman was charged with rejecting Islam when his trial started last week, the judge added.
During the hearing, Rahman allegedly confessed that he converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago when he was 25 and working as a medical aid worker for Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan, Mawlavezada was quoted as saying.
After being an aid worker for four years in Pakistan, Rahman moved to Germany for nine years, his father, Abdul Manan, told reporters outside his Kabul home.
Rahman returned to Afghanistan in 2002 and tried to gain custody of his two daughters, now ages 13 and 14, who had been living with their grandparents their whole lives, the father said. A custody battle ensued and the matter was taken to the police. During questioning, it emerged that Rahman was a Christian and was carrying a Bible. He was immediately arrested, the father said.
Repeated attempts to interview Rahman in detention were barred. Afghanistan's constitution is based on Shariah law, which is interpreted by many Muslims to require that any Muslim who rejects Islam be sentenced to death, analysts say.
"We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law," the judge explained. "It is an attack on Islam. … The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty." The prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, said the case was the first of its kind in Afghanistan. He reportedly said he had offered to drop the charges if Rahman changed his religion back to Islam, but the defendant refused.
"He would have been forgiven if he changed back. But he said he was a Christian and would always remain one," Wasi told AP. "We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty."
Mawlavezada said he would rule on the case within two months. Afghanistan is a deeply conservative society and 99 percent of its 28 million people are Muslim. The rest are mainly Hindus.
Christian aid workers in the region say the case has underscored the difficulties Christians face in the country. Few reportedly admit their faith because of fear of retribution and there are no known Afghan churches. An old house in a war-wrecked suburb of Kabul serves as a Christian place of worship for expatriates. From the muddy street, the building looks like any other. Its guard, Abdul Wahid, said no Afghans go there, AP reported.
The only other churches are believed to be inside foreign embassies or on bases belonging to the US-led coalition or a NATO peacekeeping force. Human rights watchers say the case would attract widespread attention in Afghanistan and could be exploited by Muslim conservatives to rally opposition to reformists who are trying to moderate how the religion is practiced here. It was unclear if and when the international community, including the United States, would intervene to prevent the execution of the Christian man.
"The reformists are trying to bring about positive changes," he said. "This case could be fertile ground for extremists to manipulate things," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Muslim clerics still hold considerable power in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas where most women wear all-encompassing burqas and are dominated by men. Hakim said that if Rahman was acquitted, it would be a propaganda win for the Taliban rebels, who have stepped up their insurgency in the past year, AP reported.
In the months before US-led troops ousted the Taliban in 2001, it claimed Western aid groups were trying to convert Afghan Muslims. They arrested eight aid workers for allegedly preaching Christianity, but they were later rescued by coalition forces.
"The new administration of Afghanistan, having received authority upon the ousting and hunting down of Taliban and al Qaeda operatives as a result of [the] 9/11 [attacks], has attempted to open the door to renewed human rights for women and minorities in the country," said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which monitors religious rights abuses.
"However, as Christians in the area would tell you, the threat is still very real. Christians are as likely to be killed by a Muslim neighbor as they were by their Islamic rulers of the past," CSW added. "The fear continues for minority religions in Afghanistan, and until reasonable order and a fair justice process are in place to punish the persecutors, Christians will require prayer and intervention to keep them safe," CSW said in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife. (With reports from Afghanistan).
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