The Afghan Christian: Freed but Not Free

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Abdul Rahman shown on television Wednesday at a Kabul court

The dismissal of a case against an Afghan citizen for converting from Islam to Christianity has saved Afghanistan's government a damaging showdown with its primary patron, the United States. Under mounting pressure from Washington and other Western backers, President Hamid Karzai is reported to have intervened personally to have the case of Abdul Rahman, 41, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago, dismissed. But the grounds on which the case was thrown out — insufficient evidence and other technicalities, as well as questions over the sanity of the accused — do not change the basic problem that had put both Karzai and his Western backers in a tight spot.

Abdul Rahman and others like him still face the possibility of being charged with apostasy for converting out of Islam, an offense that carries a penalty of death unless they renounce their new faith. While Afghanistan's constitution embraces international human rights conventions that guarantee freedom of worship, it also codifies the role of Islamic Sharia law — under which Abdul Rahman was charged. And even while Washington and NATO governments whose troops help provide security for Karzai's government had urged Kabul to drop the charges, public opinion on the streets of Afghanistan — recently inflamed by episodes such as the furor over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — showed strong support for legal action against the convert. But Karzai, whose government's security position remains as precarious as ever, was in no position to resist Washington's demands. As President Bush put it, "We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values."

But it was not in recognition of "universal values" that Abdul Rahman was released. Instead, authorities cited insufficient evidence, insinuations about his mental state and even questions raised by the authorities over his citizenship. The legal basis for charging someone for converting from Islam to Christianity has not, thus far, been altered — the political confict that from having U.S. troops trying to protect a government that can't guarantee the right of its citizens to choose the same faith as the President of the United States has simply been kicked down the road. Not only that, the Abdul Rahman case has alerted the Evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party to the need to press the Bush Administration on the issue, and at the same time mobilized the conservative Muslim clerical establishment and the powerful Islamist politicians in Afghanistan's coalition government to defend their Sharia code. Not surprisingly, there is speculation that Abdul Rahman may leave Afghanistan once he's out of jail.