Afghan Leader's Christian Dilemma

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai before his address at a symposium in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday

President Hamid Karzai’s fragile Afghan government finds itself in a bind over the trial of Abdul Rahman, 41, who faces the death sentence for converting to Christianity. International pressure is building on Karzai to interfere in the judicial process and free Rahman. But the President must also contend with deeply conservative Afghans — many of whom already regard him as too pro-West — who believe the convert should be punished under Islamic law.

This week, several world leaders — including those with peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan — have voiced alarm about the trial. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Karzai on Thursday, urging a "favorable resolution" to the case.

But for many Afghans, the “favorable resolution” would be Rahman’s execution. It’s not only the country’s conservative clergy that is calling for his death. "He has brought shame on the name of Afghanistan and deserves to die," said Daud Massoud, 37, a taxi driver in Kabul. That sentiment resonates strongest in the country’s deeply conservative south and east, over which Kabul exercises little control. These are also the areas where the Taliban is making a comeback and top Al-Qaeda commanders are believed to be hiding.

Meanwhile, the judge presiding over the case has rejected international calls for leniency and warned the Karzai government not to interfere with the judicial process. Ansarullah Maulavizada appealed for the West to respect the independence of the Afghan judiciary. “In the West you allow two women to get married because that is the law and I respect that,” he told TIME. “In Afghanistan, we have Sharia law and the people respect and accept this.”

The only concession Maulavizada is prepared to make is to speed up the trial process. "Because this is a complex case we would like to get it over with quickly — the hearing will be this week," he said.

Karzai is acutely aware of how badly a death sentence would play with foreign governments whose aid dollars keep the Afghan economy afloat — and whose troops keep the peace. “There is no way it would come to a death penalty,” a top Afghan government official told TIME, “because Karzai would have the final say on any appeal [Rahman] made to have his sentence commuted.” Karzai has greenlighted only one death sentence since he came to office.

It may not come to that. Some officials have suggested that Rahman may be declared mentally ill, allowing the judge to show leniency. “He has said he is a Christian, but we do not know about his mental state,” said Maulavizada. “We will investigate and if we find he is mentally ill we will send him to the doctors.”