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Bush expresses concern over Afghan Christian

KABUL, Afghanistan (BP)–On the day President Bush expressed concern that the arrest of an Afghan Christian convert reveals a disturbing lack of religious freedom, a Christian news service reported the arrest of at least two other Afghan Christians elsewhere in the country.

“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 in Wheeling, W.Va. “… We’ll deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religion.”

The uproar began when Abdul Rahman — whose age has been reported as both 41 and 42 — 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 Sharia law.

Compass Direct News, which monitors the persecution of Christians worldwide, reported the arrest of two additional Afghan Christians and the deepening harassment of others sparked by the international controversy surrounding Rahman’s detainment.

“This past weekend, one young Afghan convert to Christianity was beaten severely outside his home by a group of six men, who finally knocked him unconscious with a hard blow to his temple,” Compass Direct reported March 22. “He woke up in the hospital two hours later but was discharged before morning.”

Homes and places of business of several other Afghan Christians have been raided by police in recent weeks, the news service said, and telephone threats have been common.

Islamic militants have captured and murdered at least five Afghan Christians in the past two years for abandoning Islam, Compass Direct said, but Rahman’s case is the first such known prosecution in Afghanistan in recent decades.

The Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington released a statement March 22 acknowledging the “significant number of inquiries” about the Rahman case and hinting that his execution may be avoided because of a mental illness.

“Afghanistan’s judicial system is currently evaluating questions raised about the mental fitness of Mr. Rahman, the results of which may end the proceedings,” the statement said. “Hence we kindly request that the judicial process be given time to resolve Mr. Rahman’s case.”

Nearly all of the NATO countries, including officials from Germany, Italy and Canada, have expressed “extremely serious concerns” about the Rahman case, The Washington Post reported, because those nations’ troops have played a role in securing freedom from the Taliban for the Muslim nation.

Diplomats in several of those countries said March 22 they had received assurance that Rahman would not be executed, according to The Post.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the Rahman situation highlights the importance of international human rights standards.

“This case points up the need for everyone to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of conscience and belief,” Land said in a statement to Baptist Press. “The American people are not sending their young men and women to Afghanistan for this definition of freedom. Compulsion in the name of any religion is shameful and should be rejected by every sincere professor of any religion. Mr. Rahman should be released immediately.”

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, reminded Bush in a letter March 22 that on several occasions they had “raised concern that the Afghan constitution’s failure to include adequate guarantees of freedom of religion … could lead to unjust criminal accusations of apostasy and blasphemy.”

“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, of which Land is a member, told Bush.

Rahman’s arrest and possible execution “clearly puts to the test” the commitment of the government headed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to “abide by its international human rights obligations, as provided in Afghanistan’s constitution,” the commission said.

USCIRF called for the Bush administration to press Afghanistan on the issue and ensure that Rahman is freed immediately with charges dismissed.

“The arrest of Mr. Rahman indicates that religious extremists still have significant influence in Kabul, threatening not just the religious freedom of this one man, but the fundamental rights of each and every Afghan citizen,” the commission concluded. “We believe that it is the obligation of our government to act vigorously on his behalf.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said he was deeply disturbed that such a case of religious persecution was happening in a country the United States continues to defend.

“Executing or imprisoning a person solely because of his religious beliefs violates the Afghan constitution as well as international law and would set a dangerous precedent for future religious prosecution worldwide,” Sekulow, who wrote a letter on behalf of the ACLJ to Afghan officials, said. “The thought of a convert to Christianity being put to death for his religious beliefs is intolerable. We call on the Afghan government to drop the criminal charges against Abdul Rahman and to set him free without delay.”

The letter was sent to Afghanistan’s president and U.S. ambassador as well as to Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and members of Congress.

Rahman converted to Christianity 16 years ago while serving alongside Christian aid groups in Pakistan. His wife divorced him when he became a Christian, and custody of his two young daughters went to his parents. After years of applying for asylum in European countries, Rahman was deported to Afghanistan, where in recent months he sought to regain custody of his now teenage daughters, Compass Direct said.

But his relatives turned him in to the government as a Christian convert in order to stop him from contacting the family, Compass Direct reported. He then was arrested.

International Christian Concern, an interdenominational human rights organization based in Washington, has urged “all concerned parties to contact the Embassy of Afghanistan to express their opposition to this violation of freedom of conscience and urge the immediate acquittal of Abdul Rahman.”

The contact information is: Embassy of Afghanistan, 2341 Wyoming Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008; telephone, (202)483-6410; fax, (202)483-6488; e-mail, [email protected].

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  • Erin Roach