U.S. presses for release of convert


WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration stepped up pressure yesterday on Afghanistan's government to free a man facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity, in a case that is threatening to further sharpen tensions between the West and the Islamic world.

A day after President Bush expressed his concern, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Afghan President Hamid Karzai and urged him "in the strongest terms" to help resolve the case of Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old medical aid worker.

Rahman faces trial in an Islamic court after it was disclosed in a civil child custody case with his wife that he converted to Christianity 16 years ago.

Islamic law, or Sharia, considers converts to be apostates and calls for the death penalty unless they convert back to Islam.

The case, disclosed Sunday by an Afghan judge, has unleashed an emotional international furor with strong religious overtones and given rise to domestic political turmoil in the United States, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The controversy puts enormous pressure on Karzai, whose weak government is heavily dependent on the U.S. and Europe for financial aid and military protection from Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, but who must also face conservative clerics at home who would frown on what they view as excessive government cooperation with the West.

Bush must contend with outraged conservative Christian groups, one of the most important parts of his political base, while he continues to nurture the fragile Karzai government.

Conservatives signaled they might consider abandoning Bush on his Middle East policy unless the Afghans back down. The White House was deluged by e-mails from religious groups.

"How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by radical Islamists who kill Christians?" wrote Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a social conservative lobbying group, in a letter this week to Bush and congressional leaders.

Leaders of European and other nations, Christian churches and the NATO alliance that is protecting Afghanistan all have been in touch with the Afghans to urge that the principle of religious tolerance is observed.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Karzai assured him that "we don't have to worry" about Rahman's fate, Harper said after a conversation with the Afghan leader:

"President Karzai has assured me that what's alarmed most of us will be worked out quickly."

However, Rice did not report receiving such assurances. Sean McCormack, chief State Department spokesman, said that in her call to Karzai, Rice sought a "favorable resolution to this case at the earliest possible moment."

Afghanistan's new constitution calls for religious freedom of expression, but it has an unresolved conflict with the traditional Sharia law, which does not permit conversions out of Islam.

Ansarullah Mawlavizada, an Afghan Supreme Court judge, told the Reuters news service: "Afghanistan is an Islamic country and its judiciary will act independently and neutrally. ... No other policy will be accepted apart from Islamic orders and what our constitution says."

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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