Afghan Convert Arrives in Italy as Protests Mount in Homeland

Rome, Italy - Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity who faced a possible death sentence in his homeland for rejecting Islam, has arrived in Italy and will be granted political asylum here, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday.

Berlusconi told Italian journalists that Rahman, 41, had probably arrived overnight and was now in the hands of the Interior Ministry. It was not immediately clear how he had traveled to Italy from Afghanistan, and his exact whereabouts were being kept secret.

"We are very glad to be able to welcome someone who has been so courageous,'' Berlusconi said.

Rahman departed for Europe as a confrontation was building between the Afghan government and the Christian world. Political and religious leaders in Europe, including Pope Benedict XVI, had condemned Rahman's prosecution on charges of apostasy, a capital offense under sharia , or Islamic law. The Bush administration, which has about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, called on the Afghan government to respect religious freedom.

Rahman was released late Monday from a high-security prison outside Kabul after a public security court dismissed the charges against him, citing a lack of evidence and suspicions that he is mentally ill.

On Wednesday, Western governments welcomed Rahman's release. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a "sensible signal to the international community but also for the situation in Afghanistan." Germany is a major donor to Afghanistan with about 2,000 troops in the NATO security force there.

But controversy continued to boil in Afghanistan, where Islamic clerics and members of parliament strongly objected to Rahman being freed from prison and allowed to leave the country. Demonstrators in several cities continued to protest foreign interference, and critics accused President Hamid Karzai of giving in to international pressure.

Under Islamic law, rejection of Islam is a grave offense, punishable by death if the convert does not repent. Afghanistan is a deeply traditional Muslim country where there are no publicly practicing Afghan Christians. Both proselytizing and conversion are viewed by most people as anathema.

On Wednesday, 500 clerics gathered in a mosque in the southern city of Qalat to protest Rahman's release, news services reported from Kabul. Abdulrahman Jan, the top cleric in the Qalat region, said the government should either force Rahman to convert back to Islam or kill him.

"This is a terrible thing and a major shame for Afghanistan," he said.

The Afghan parliament also condemned Rahman's liberation as a breach of Islamic law, but did not take a formal vote on the issue.

"We sent a letter and called the Interior Ministry and demanded they not allow Abdul Rahman to leave the country," Yonus Qanooni, the speaker in the lower house and a leading political rival of Karzai, told reporters in Kabul. During debate, several other legislators said Rahman should be executed.

The case has highlighted the contradictions that remain between Afghan society and the Western powers that in 2001 helped topple the Taliban, the extremist Islamic movement that ruled most of the country. Although Afghanistan is now a democracy with an elected president, its constitution enshrines sharia as well as international human rights conventions.

Rahman converted 16 years ago while working with a Christian refugee aid group in Pakistan. He then moved to Germany. Only recently had he returned home to Kabul, where he was arrested for possessing a Bible after his relatives informed police. He was embroiled in a child custody battle with his estranged wife, an Afghan Muslim.

His arrival in Italy came in the middle of a hotly contested election campaign, in which some groups in Berlusconi's ruling coalition are running on a platform that opposes immigration and portrays Western civilization as on the defensive against an onslaught of Muslim intolerance.

Rahman told 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."

Italy has close ties with Afghanistan, whose former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was allowed to live in exile in Rome with his family for 30 years. The former royals returned to Kabul after the Taliban fell.