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Afghan Christian absolved of charges but awaits release; asylum elsewhere possible

KABUL, Afghanistan (BP)–Apostasy charges were dropped March 26 against an Afghan Christian whose arrest and possible execution drew fervent concern from President Bush and other leaders of the nations that helped secure freedom for Afghanistan.

The case against Abdul Rahman was dismissed when an Afghan court ruled there was insufficient evidence and said he might not be mentally fit to stand trial, according to the Associated Press.

But fears for Rahman’s life escalated as hundreds of Muslims staged a two-hour protest in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, March 27, shouting “Death to Bush” and other anti-Western phrases. Muslim clerics who supported the government’s arrest of Rahman threatened to urge Afghans to kill the converted Christian if he is set free, AP said.

A United Nations spokesperson said Rahman has applied for asylum outside Afghanistan, and the official expects “this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case.” The U.N. is working with the Afghan government to meet the request, AP reported.

Rahman, who became a Christian 16 years ago while serving alongside Christian aid workers in Pakistan, was moved from a jail in central Kabul to a high-security prison outside the city where about 350 Taliban and al Qaeda militants are being held.

The move was prompted by threats from fellow inmates at the Kabul jail, and news reports indicate prisoners at his latest location are unaware of his presence. A senior guard told AP, Rahman is in solitary confinement in a tiny concrete cell next to a guard’s office.

“He looks very calm, but he keeps saying he is hearing voices,” Gen. Shahmir Amirpur, the prison warden, said, adding that Rahman had asked guards for a Bible but they did not have one to give him.

Prosecutors had said they wanted Rahman to undergo medical examinations, and they have not confirmed plans to release him, AP reported.

A Sunni leader predicted large protests across Afghanistan if Rahman is released rather than executed and told AP the dismissal of charges “has shamed Afghanistan in the eyes of other Muslim countries.”

The uproar began when Rahman was arrested in Afghanistan March 16 for rejecting Islam and embracing Christianity, an offense that could warrant the death penalty in a nation governed by Muslim law.

Bush expressed concern that a nation the United States continues to defend would rob a citizen of religious freedom.

“It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another,” Bush said March 22. “… We’ll deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religion.”

Other leaders of coalition nations followed suit, as did many conservative groups in the United States, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, charged with monitoring the status of freedom of religion abroad and giving policy recommendations to the president.

“This case confirms that fundamental democratic rights and freedoms — and particularly those rights related to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief — are still under threat in Afghanistan,” the commission wrote in a letter to Bush.

Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, wrote in an opinion piece on National Review Online March 24 that the problem in Afghanistan is larger than Rahman.

“This will be a persistent, recurring problem under Afghanistan’s sharia apostasy and blasphemy laws,” Shea wrote. “The [Bush] administration also needs to do more to ensure the reform [of] Afghanistan’s judiciary. President [Hamid] Karzai must be encouraged to wrest it from the control of Islamists like Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, who once told our National Public Radio that it is his duty as a judge to ‘behead’ those who do not conform to Islamic law.

“Americans continue to give billions of dollars and sacrifice their lives to support the Afghan government. It not only serves compelling humanitarian interests to use this leverage now, but it would be a betrayal of America’s deepest national values not to,” she added.

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