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Afghan convert controversy mirrors cartoons row

Written by: Staff

ROME, Mar 23 (Reuters) The strong Western response to a threatened death sentence for an Afghan convert to Christianity looks something like a mirror image of the Muslim reaction to the Prophet Mohammad caricatures printed in the European press.

There have been no riots or sackings of Afghan embassies, unlike the violence that marked the uproar in Muslim countries after the Danish cartoons were published, but the shock and mutual incomprehension expressed in both cases are similar.

The difference lies in the issues at stake. In the cartoons row, Muslims stressed the sanctity of Mohammad, whom they say nobody -- even non-Muslims -- can criticise. The subtext was resentment against perceived Western prejudice against Islam.

Now, Western governments and societies are speaking out for religious freedom and against the death penalty. The fact many Western troops now help defend the Afghan government against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants heightened the outrage in the West.

Amin Farhang, the Afghan economy minister who lived in exile in Germany for 22 years before returning to Kabul in 2001, saw the parallels and warned against any escalation.

''Following the row about the cartoons, which has cost so many lives, we should look calmly at things and work for a fair solution,'' he told the German daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger.

But he stressed the gulf between western-style freedoms and traditional Muslim societies that consider conversion from Islam to be an insult punishable by death. ''Afghanistan cannot switch suddenly from one extreme to the other,'' he said.

FREEDOM A NORM, NOT AN EXTREME The uproar sparked off by the case of Abdur Rahman, now on trial in Kabul for renouncing Islam, showed that Westerners saw religious freedom as a norm and not an extreme.

''It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another,'' President George Bush yesterday said.

Some critics suggested NATO states withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. A few even suggested that Western troops kidnap Abdur Rahman and bring him along when they leave.

More Reuters DKS DB1822

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