Being Christian in Afghanistan

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A screen grab of Abdul Rahman on television in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday

When a Christian believer in a nation wholly dependent on U.S. support faces trial and possibly execution simply for embracing the same faith as the President of the United States, you'd think that country would be read the riot act. Instead, Washington's response to the trial in Afghanistan of Abdul Rahman has been rather muted. President Bush said Wednesday he was deeply troubled by the case and said he expected Afghanistan to "honor the universal principle of freedom." Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has urged the Afghan authorities to follow what he said was their own constitution's commitment to the principle of freedom of worship, but added that the U.S. was not going to get involved in the case. "This is a case that is not under the competence of the United States," he said. "It is under the competence of the Afghan authorities. We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld, and in our view, if it is upheld, he will be found to be innocent."

Perhaps, but there's hardly any certainty over that outcome — even in the new Afghanistan liberated from the rule of the Taliban, personal status issues are governed by Islamic Sharia law rather than a civil code. And it's not clear how a conflict between Sharia and the Afghan constitution's embrace of U.N. Human Rights conventions that guarantee freedom of worship would be resolved. The country's chief justice, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, has no secular legal education, and had previously been the head of a Council of Islamic Scholars. He is also a close associate of Abdul-Rabb al-Rassul Sayyaf, by a mujahedeen warlord-turned-legislator who once had close ties with Osama bin Laden.

Rahman, 41, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago, has been charged in a case arising out of a custody dispute. He may avoid conviction, however, not because of constitutional provisions for freedom of religion, but because both the judge and prosecutors have questioned his sanity and his fitness to stand trial. "We think he could be mad," prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari told the AP. "He does not talk like a normal person." Rahman earlier told the court, "They want to sentence me to death and I accept it, but I am not a deserter and not an infidel. I am a Christian, which means I believe in the Trinity."

The subdued response of the Bush Administration, and the neutral stance taken by President Hamid Karzai, who has stressed that the matter must be left to the courts, underscores the political sensitivity of the case. Even after the Taliban's ouster, much of Afghanistan's political life is dominated by conservative Islamists. And successive Afghan governments have come out strongly against proselytizing by Christian missionary groups — they're willing to accept aid, but are hostile to any attempt to secure converts. That may fly in the face of the principle of religious freedom, just as the furor over the Danish cartoons challenged the principle of freedom of speech, but there's little doubt that any appearance of Western powers seeking to defend the right of Christians to proselytize in Muslim lands would touch off a similar response in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, frontline allies in the war on terror. The Abdul Rahman case highlights the limits on the freedom the U.S. has brought to Afghanistan, and will raise the ire of the Evangelical Christian political base of the GOP. But Washington will also be aware that the current political order may be as good as it gets right now, in terms of an Afghan government allied with the West. And if the priority is saving Mr. Rahman's life and preserving his freedom, turning the case into a "clash of civilizations" battle of wills may not be the most effective strategy.