Christian convert's whereabouts unclear

He disappeared after Afghan prison release

March 29, 2006|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Abdul Rahman, threatened with the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity in a case that drew Western condemnation, disappeared yesterday.

He was not in a Kabul mental hospital despite allegations that he is mentally ill. He was not with international troops. Members of his family said they did not know where he is.

Most likely, after his release late Monday from an Afghan prison, Rahman was being protected by the United Nations, Afghan officials and a Western diplomat said. A U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan said he could not comment on the case, but several Afghan officials said Rahman was released to U.N. custody.

"I have no idea where he is, to be honest," said Rahman's brother, who did not want his name used.

The United Nations announced Monday that Rahman has asked for asylum. If he were released in Kabul, his life would be in danger; many Afghans believe he should be executed for abandoning Islam.

Italy has volunteered to grant Rahman asylum, but it is not clear where Rahman will go. Lou Fintor, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said American officials are working with authorities to ensure Rahman's well-being and that Rahman would pick where he wants to live.

The case has alarmed Western nations, especially the countries that have propped up Afghanistan with money and troops since driving out the fundamentalist Taliban regime in late 2001. Several countries threatened to pull their soldiers if Rahman were killed.

Inside Afghanistan, the moderate Islamic government faced pressure from conservative forces who said Islamic law requires the death penalty for anyone converting from Islam to another religion. Moderate clerics disagree with that interpretation, but in Afghanistan, most clerics are conservative. Afghanistan's Constitution is riddled with contradictions, protecting human rights and freedom of religion while laying out Islamic law as the country's overriding principle.

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