Conversion a thorny issue in Muslim world
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN; AND CAIRO
Under pressure from the US, the Vatican, and other Western leaders, Afghanistan's fledgling democracy Sunday sidestepped a politically charged case in which prosecutors had sought the death penalty for a Muslim man who converted to Christianity.Skip to next paragraph
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Rather than pass judgment on Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who converted while living abroad 16 years ago, the court declared him mentally unfit for trial Sunday. "He is a sick person," said Mohammed Eshaq Aloko, Afghanistan's deputy attorney general. Afghan officials said Mr. Rahman would be transferred to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
The case has not only thrown a spotlight on the laws and practices of an Afghan government that the United States helped to install but is a reminder of the limits - sometimes severely enforced - placed on religious freedoms by many countries in the Muslim world.
While state executions for apostasy are rarely carried out, laws allowing them remain on the books in not only Afghanistan but in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan.
More generally, while countries like Egypt and Pakistan guarantee religious freedoms in their constitutions, they limit religious speech and local police frequently lean on people to recant if they seek to convert.
In recent years, religious tension between Muslims and Christians has soared in many countries, and states like Egypt and Pakistan frequently find themselves caught between extremists on both sides.
Last year for instance, Egyptian Christians and Muslims clashed over a girl the Christians claimed had been forced to convert to Islam. The Muslim side said the girl was a willing convert, and had married a Muslim.
In Pakistan, while apostasy cases are rare, vigilante attacks against alleged apostates and others thought to offend Islam are common. "There's not been a single case of apostasy in Pakistan in the last 10 to 15 years, at least not one that has attracted a lot of attention," says Najam Sethi, editor of the liberal Lahore-based newspaper, Daily Times.
But as much of the Muslim world, including Pakistan, takes a more negative view of America and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been greater popular pressure on religious freedoms, with courts and governments usually reluctant to intervene.
In Pakistani villages, Muslims who convert to Christianity are occasionally killed by their own family members, to protect the family's honor. In major cities, Islamic militant groups have launched attacks against Christian churches for their supposed sympathy for America. In Alexandria, Egypt, last October, three rioters died as they sought to attack a church for distributing DVDs of a play deemed offensive to Islam.
This context is what has made Rahman's case so difficult for the secular- leaning and pro-US Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Afghanistan is in the eye of the storm, in terms of anti-Western feeling," say Mr. Sethi. "If the Supreme Court [had] upheld its decision, and then passed the buck on to Mr. Karzai to say, 'OK, it's up to you, you have the power of clemency,' then that puts Karzai in a bad spot as far as Islamists are concerned."
Sunday's pronouncement of Rahman by prosecutors and the judge as unfit would now seem to spare President Karzai this embarrassing quandary.