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Afghan man threatened with death for converting to Christianity

Written by: Staff
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ROME, Mar 22: An Afghan man threatened with death for converting to Christianity will probably not be executed, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini has said after the case sparked protests among Kabul's Western allies.

Fini, whose country was one of four NATO members with troops in Afghanistan to speak out about the case, told Italian television late yesterday he had indications the Islamic punishment for apostasy would not be imposed on Abdul Rahman.

''From what I've been told, and I have no reason to doubt it, the death sentence will not be carried out,'' said Fini, whose ministry had summoned the Afghan ambassador in Rome yesterday to discuss the case. He gave no other details.

The ruling sparked a series of protests in Western states more sensitive to the role of religion in international affairs after the Prophet Mohammad caricatures in a Danish newspaper triggered violent protests and demands for an apology in the Muslim world.

The United States, which counts Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a main ally, raised it with visiting Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, urging Kabul to uphold the constitutional right of Afghan citizens to choose their faith.

Italy, Germany and Canada all expressed their concern.

Germany's top Catholic prelate, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, did the same and demanded that Christians enjoy the same religious freedom in Islamic countries as Muslims did in the West.

Lehmann's call touched a sore point in Christian-Muslim relations highlighted by the cartoon controversy. The growing number of Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America have far more religious freedom than Christians do in some Muslim states.

After some Muslims demanded that Western countries censor cartoons that offend Islamic sensitivities, the Vatican and other Christian authorities stepped up calls for ''reciprocity,'' or equal freedom for religions everywhere.

''HUNDREDS OF MESSAGES''

An Afghan judge said on Sunday Abdur Rahman had been jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again. Sharia, or Islamic law, stipulates death for apostasy.

''We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld and in our view, if it's upheld, then of course he'll be found to be innocent,'' said Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranked diplomat, at a news conference with Abdullah.

Abdullah said Kabul's US embassy had received ''hundreds of messages'' from Americans and added: ''I know that it is a very sensitive issue. I hope that through our constitutional process, there will be a satisfactory result.'' The protests present a dilemma for Karzai, who needs foreign troops to defend against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.

Some 23,000 US troops are in the country targeting Taliban and al Qaeda forces. Germany has 2,700 soldiers in Afghanistan, Canada has 2,300 and Italy has 1,775.

Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga has called for a withdrawal of Italian troops from Afghanistan if Afghanistan could not assure Rahman's safety.

''It is not acceptable that our soldiers should put themselves at risk or even sacrifice their lives for a fundamentalist, illiberal regime,'' Cossiga said.

Afghanistan is a conservative Islamic country and 99 per cent of its more than 25 million people are Muslim. A court sentenced two Afghan journalists to death for blasphemy three years ago but they escaped and sought asylum abroad.

REUTERS

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