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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 14:20 GMT
Mood hardens against Afghan convert

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Kabul

Abdul Rahman in court
Abdul Rahman is refusing to return to Islam

Increasing international pressure over the case of Christian convert Abdul Rahman is forcing the Afghan government to play a careful balancing act between its Western allies and religious conservatives at home.

Under the interpretation of Islamic Sharia law on which Afghanistan's constitution is based, Mr Rahman faces the death penalty unless he reconverts to Islam.

"The Prophet Muhammad has said several times that those who convert from Islam should be killed if they refuse to come back," says Ansarullah Mawlafizada, the trial judge.

"Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, kindness and integrity. That is why we have told him if he regrets what he did, then we will forgive him," he told the BBC News website.

'Deserves it'

The judge's comments are one indication of why President Hamid Karzai, who already has a reputation for being pro-Western, faces some difficult choices.

The president has yet to comment publicly on the trial but statements put out by his office point out that, while the government respects human rights and personal freedom, the country has an independent judicial system.

Who is America to tell us what to do? If Karzai listens to them there will be jihad
Mohammed Qadir
Kabul resident
In practice, it is even more complicated.

The Afghan judiciary is dominated by religious conservatives, many with strong religious ties or backgrounds.

Many feel it will be difficult for the president and the government to confront the judiciary.

But the bigger problem confronting the president is that an overwhelming number of ordinary Afghans appear to believe Mr Rahman has erred and deserves to be executed.

At Friday prayers in mosques across the Afghan capital, the case of Abdul Rahman and the consequent international outcry is the hot topic of discussion and the centrepiece of sermons.

"We will not let anyone interfere with our religious practices," declared cleric Inayatullah at Kabul's Pulakasthy mosque, one of the city's largest.

"What Rahman has done is wrong and he must be punished."

Public mood

The issue has not reached the stage of street protests, as was the case recently during demonstrations against the publication in the West of cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad.

But there is little doubt that feelings run deep and can easily be inflamed.

Worshippers at the Pulakasthy mosque in Kabul
The mood among worshippers in Kabul is hardening

"What is wrong with Islam that he should want to convert?" asks an agitated Abdul Zahid Payman.

"The courts should punish him and he should be put to death."

Few were willing to listen to the growing condemnation in the West.

"According to Islamic law he should be sentenced to death because God has clearly stated that Christianity is forbidden in our land," says Mohammed Qadir, another worshipper.

US President George Bush says he is "deeply troubled" by the case.

That cuts no ice with Mr Qadir.

"Who is America to tell us what to do? If Karzai listens to them there will be jihad (holy war)."

Western backers of the Afghan government are pressing to create a country that is a moderate and progressive democracy, able to turn its back on its Taleban past.

But analysts say they often forget that Afghanistan is a deeply conservative country rooted in tribal traditions.

"This is a Muslim country. The state is Muslim, people are Muslim 99%," says Judge Ansarullah.

"This is a very sensitive issue."

Afghanistan's constitution, written in 2004, enshrines the country as an Islamic state under which no law can contravene Islam.

But it also protects personal freedom and respects international human rights conventions.

"It is a deliberately ambiguous document which tries to paper over the cracks and contradictions of Afghanistan," says one Afghan law professor privately.

"But now the contradictions have risen to the surface."


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