Religious freedom Afghan-style is no freedom

The trial of a Christian convert undermines the US democracy agenda.

Efforts by the US soldiers deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom to help the Afghan people throw off the oppressive Taliban government appear not to be complete. A 41-year-old Afghan man, Abdul Rahman, is being tried for converting to Christianity 16 years ago. If found guilty by the Afghan court he faces the death penalty. The judge in the case, Ansarullah Mawlazezadah, has commented to ABC News, "We will ask [Rahman] if he has changed his mind about being a Christian. If he has, we will forgive him, because Islam is a religion of tolerance."

Is this what Americans have fought for in the frigid mountains of Tora Bora? Americans of all religions strongly supported Operation Enduring Freedom. The Taliban regime was an Islamic fundamentalist government that harbored Al Qaeda, murdered women, oppressed its people, and blew up historic statues of Buddha. The entire world joined in condemning the Taliban. Even Europe joined us in fighting against these sponsors of terror.

But we will have gained nothing if we allow another Islamic fundamentalist regime to arise in Kabul. This is not a minor matter. If the government of Hamid Kharzai - which is receiving billions in US aid - cannot stop this travesty of justice, it will be too weak and compromised to resist the terrorists.

Our State Department is presently wringing its hands over the fate of Abdul Rahman. "It's important ... that the Afghan authorities conduct this trial and proceedings that lead up to it in as transparent a manner as possible," said spokesman Sean McCormack. "Freedom of worship is an important element of any democracy and these are issues as Afghan democracy matures that they are going to have to deal with increasingly."

Where is the outrage? It's not just an "immature" democracy that is on exhibit in Afghanistan. The new Afghan Constitution incorporates the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights. That declaration's Article 18 specifically recognizes the right of all people to change their religion. Even to prepare a trial for a person who has committed this "crime" is a gross violation of that declaration, and of the new Afghan Constitution as well.

My concern is not only for Afghanistan, but also for Iraq. We raised the issue with the State Department about similar language in the newly adopted Iraqi Constitution that granted "religious freedom" but clearly stated that new laws could not conflict with sharia law. What we are seeing in Afghanistan is that the Afghan people are indeed free to choose their religion, as long as they choose Islam.

Religious liberty is not the icing on the cake. It's not the tree topper, nor an "element" of democracy. It is fundamental. If the Afghan people do not learn now that they cannot resolve differences of conscience by violence, by judicial murder, then they have no future as a democracy. The entire democracy project will fail. And all that President Bush has accomplished and hopes to accomplish in the Middle East will be threatened.

Yes, I write as a Christian. But my stance would be the same if I were an adherent of a different religion. Rabbi Hillel said it well in the Talmud eons ago: "If I am not for me, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" America went to war in 1999 to protect Kosovar Muslims who were being "ethnically cleansed" by Serbs who were nominally Orthodox Christians. Most of us thought that was just.

Who can claim it is a just war that results in reestablishing a radical Islamic fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan? And what else can you call it if Christian converts are killed, or confined to mental institutions, Soviet-style, as the Afghan authorities are now reportedly considering? For freedom to endure it must first gain a foothold, and that foothold may well depend on the fate of Abdul Rahman.

Tony Perkins, a former marine who served during the Gulf War, is the president of the Family Research Council. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly indicated that Perkins served in, rather than during, the Gulf War.]

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