KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Growing international pressure on Afghanistan to respect the religious freedom of a Christian convert was met in Afghanistan on Friday by calls for the man to be executed for denying Islam.
The controversy over Abdur Rahman, 40, whose trial is due to begin next week, threatens to drive a wedge between Afghanistan and Western countries that are ensuring its security and bankrolling its development.
But President Hamid Karzai cannot ignore conservative proponents of Islamic law or appear to bow too readily to outside pressure.
Religious and political figures meeting at a Kabul hotel, including former prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai and Shi’ite cleric Asif Mohsenia who commanded anti-Soviet forces in the 1980s, said the government should ensure that Islamic law is enforced.
It said if its demands were ignored, “the Muslim people of Afghanistan would consider struggle their legal and religious duty.”
Rahman was detained last week for converting to Christianity, judicial officials say. Death is the punishment stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy. The Afghan legal system is based on a mix of civil and sharia law.
The case has sparked an outcry in North America and Europe but that appeared only to harden positions in Afghanistan.
In Washington on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had met with both Karzai and the Afghan foreign minister about the case.
“We are working with the Afghans and we look to a favorable resolution of this case,” Rice said. “We’ve been very clear: The freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of democracy.”
President George W. Bush has vowed to use U.S. leverage over Afghanistan.
Several other countries with troops in Afghanistan, including Canada, Italy, Germany and Australia, have voiced concern. Some foreign critics have urged that their troops be withdrawn.
Canada said Thursday Karzai had pledged that Rahman would not be executed. A presidential spokesman in Kabul declined to comment, but a government minister said a solution could be found.
Virtually everyone interviewed in a small sample of opinion in several parts of the deeply conservative, Muslim country on Friday said Rahman should be punished.
Several clerics raised the issue during weekly sermons in Kabul Friday, and there was little sympathy for Rahman.
“We respect all religions, but we don’t go into the British embassy or the American embassy to see what religion they are following,” said cleric Enayatullah Baligh at Kabul’s main mosque. “We won’t let anyone interfere with our religion, and he should be punished.”
Analysts say they doubt the man will be executed and his case could hinge on interpretations of the new constitution, which says “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.”
It also says Afghanistan will abide by international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines freedom of religion.
Rahman told a preliminary hearing last week he had become a Christian while working for an aid group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan 15 years ago.
He was detained after his family informed authorities he had converted, apparently following a family dispute involving two daughters, a judicial official said.
A prosecutor has raised questions about Rahman’s mental state, and a judge said that could be taken into account. Rahman has denied he is mentally unstable.