Conversion a thorny issue in Muslim world

Kabul, Afchanistan - Under pressure from the US, the Vatican, and other Western leaders, Afghanistan's fledgling democracy Sunday sidestepped a politically charged case in which prosecutors had sought the death penalty for a Muslim man who converted to Christianity.

Rather than pass judgment on Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who converted while living abroad 16 years ago, the court declared him mentally unfit for trial Sunday. "He is a sick person," said Mohammed Eshaq Aloko, Afghanistan's deputy attorney general. Afghan officials said Mr. Rahman would be transferred to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

The case has not only thrown a spotlight on the laws and practices of an Afghan government that the United States helped to install but is a reminder of the limits - sometimes severely enforced - placed on religious freedoms by many countries in the Muslim world.

While state executions for apostasy are rarely carried out, laws allowing them remain on the books in not only Afghanistan but in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan.

More generally, while countries like Egypt and Pakistan guarantee religious freedoms in their constitutions, they limit religious speech and local police frequently lean on people to recant if they seek to convert.

In recent years, religious tension between Muslims and Christians has soared in many countries, and states like Egypt and Pakistan frequently find themselves caught between extremists on both sides.

Last year for instance, Egyptian Christians and Muslims clashed over a girl the Christians claimed had been forced to convert to Islam. The Muslim side said the girl was a willing convert, and had married a Muslim.

In Pakistan, while apostasy cases are rare, vigilante attacks against alleged apostates and others thought to offend Islam are common. "There's not been a single case of apostasy in Pakistan in the last 10 to 15 years, at least not one that has attracted a lot of attention," says Najam Sethi, editor of the liberal Lahore-based newspaper, Daily Times.

But as much of the Muslim world, including Pakistan, takes a more negative view of America and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been greater popular pressure on religious freedoms, with courts and governments usually reluctant to intervene.

In Pakistani villages, Muslims who convert to Christianity are occasionally killed by their own family members, to protect the family's honor. In major cities, Islamic militant groups have launched attacks against Christian churches for their supposed sympathy for America. In Alexandria, Egypt, last October, three rioters died as they sought to attack a church for distributing DVDs of a play deemed offensive to Islam.

This context is what has made Rahman's case so difficult for the secular- leaning and pro-US Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"Afghanistan is in the eye of the storm, in terms of anti-Western feeling," say Mr. Sethi. "If the Supreme Court [had] upheld its decision, and then passed the buck on to Mr. Karzai to say, 'OK, it's up to you, you have the power of clemency,' then that puts Karzai in a bad spot as far as Islamists are concerned."

Sunday's pronouncement of Rahman by prosecutors and the judge as unfit would now seem to spare President Karzai this embarrassing quandary.

Ansarullah Mawlavezada, the judge who had been set to try Rahman's case, as well as other court officials, say that the case came to court after the family reported him for being a Christian. A lawsuit had been filed in a child-custody dispute, and his ex-wife alleged that he beat one of his two daughters while she was reading the Koran.

Rahman has said that he converted to Christianity when he was working for an aid agency in Pakistan 16 years ago.

Afghanistan is a deeply conservative country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim and an estimated 10,000 Christians can practice only in secret. Out on the street, many ordinary Afghans chimed in with the mullahs calling out at Friday prayers for Abdul Rahman to be put to death.

"The order of God is execution for this person and no one can change it. This person has denied God and the Koran and he should be punished in a way that will stop other Muslims from converting," said Sayed Saber, a 32-year-old in Kabul.

President George Bush, who called the case "deeply troubling," phoned Karzai last week to press for Rahman's release. Simultaneously, mujahideen who had been funded by the US in their fight against the Soviet Union, mobilized supporters across the country to press for execution. Karzai was caught in the middle. "It is a question of a tightrope for Karzai," said Paul Fishstein, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul.

The issue of religious freedoms is one in which, as in Afghanistan, modern laws are clashing with ancient traditions. Rahman's case illustrates a glaring contradiction between Afghanistan's constitution, which upholds the right to freedom of religion on one hand but enshrines the supremacy of sharia law on the other.

Most mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence call for converts to be executed. Though the Koran promises only hellfire for apostates and also says "there should be no compunction in religion,'' Islamic jurists have typically argued that execution is mandated, citing stories of comments made by the prophet Muhammad.

"The prophet Muhammad said that anyone who rejects Islam for another religion should be executed," said Mr. Mawlavezada, the judge.

Though some liberal Islamic scholars disagree, pointing out that no such rule exists in the Koran, they have been largely silenced in Afghanistan. Last year, Afghan writer Ali Mohaqeq Nasab spent almost three months in jail last autumn for an article questioning the traditional call for execution.

What happens next for Rahman is uncertain, though it appears likely that the government will find a way to sweep the case under the rug.

Officials said they're likely to allow him to go abroad for medical treatment.

"If his family can afford to send him overseas for medical treatment then of course we would give him a passport," says Mr. Aloko, the deputy attorney general. In that case, he would be free to seek asylum elsewhere and avoid a return to his homeland and its legal system.