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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Afghanistan treads religious tightrope

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Kabul

Abdul Rahman is interviewed during a hearing in Kabul
Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity 16 years ago

The decision to release Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert accused of rejecting Islam, came as the Afghan government faced increasing pressure from the international community.

US President George W Bush led the protests and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined other world leaders in ringing up Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the issue.

It was not surprising, then, that President Karzai personally intervened in the matter, holding a series of meetings over the weekend with top officials from his government and the judiciary to try to resolve the issue.

But by dropping the case against Mr Rahman on technical grounds - the prosecutor says medical tests confirmed that he was mentally unfit to stand trial - Mr Karzai may have opened himself up to criticism at home.

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"We have our laws and an independent judiciary and a constitution based on Sharia law," says Ishaq Gailani, an influential member of parliament, who belongs to one of Afghanistan's most respected religious families.

"By releasing this man, there are some in our country who will describe him as an infidel, and excommunicate him."

Public anger

Even those who believe Mr Rahman should not have been charged in the first place feel that his release was poorly handled.

We have got Jews and Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan who go about their lives without any problem
Ishaq Gailani,
Member of parliament

"The government should have been much more transparent," says Sima Samar, head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission.

"We have to respect the public opinion, but we have to give evidence to them that yes, he was mentally sick, and he has to go for treatment."

There has been some publicly displayed anger over the case in the past few days, in particular a protest in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif attended by hundreds of people.

They shouted anti-Western slogans and demanded that Mr Rahman be tried and executed.

But for the most part, the issue has stayed off the streets and only been brought up by some clerics in their sermons, and by a few provincial religious councils.

Little wonder, then, that not a single member of the administration, President Karzai included, has taken a public stand on the issue, well aware that any statement could be used by religious hardliners to incite passions.

Equally, there are many in the country who resent what they perceive as the undue influence of Western countries on the government and oppose the presence of international forces in Afghanistan.

Ambiguous constitution

That's one reason why many people within the administration were dismayed by criticism from the West, feeling it could in turn have negative fallout in Afghanistan.

Ishaq Gailani
Mr Gailani says there was a lot of pressure on President Karzai

Others believe the international community was hasty in its reaction.

"They put undue pressure on Karzai and put him in a difficult position," says Ishaq Gailani.

"We have got Jews and Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan who go about their lives without any problem."

Others point out that no one has been executed for apostasy in Afghanistan even under the Taleban.

In similar cases in recent years, two Afghan editors accused of blasphemy both faced the death sentence, but one claimed asylum abroad and the other was freed after a short spell in jail.

More significantly, there have been no instances of the harsh punishments handed out by the Taleban for crimes committed since then.

But along with the domestic fallout, the case of Abdul Rahman also raises some uncomfortable questions.

When the Afghan constitution was written in 2004, it enshrined personal freedoms and recognised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees the freedom to choose one's religion.

But the constitution also draws from both civil and Islamic Sharia laws and explicitly states that no law can "contravene the tenets and provisions" of Islam.

Experts say the constitution is deliberately ambiguous to address the concerns of both the reformists and the conservatives.

But a case such as this exposes the contradictions inherent in the constitution, leaving it open to interpretation and confusion.


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