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Pressure on Afghans mounts over Christian convert

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KABUL, Mar 24 (Reuters) Afghanistan faced increasing international pressure to resolve the case of a man who could face the death penalty for converting to Christianity, but many ordinary Afghans said he should be put on trial and punished.

The controversy over the man who gave up Islam threatens to drive a wedge between Afghanistan and Western countries that are ensuring its security and bankrolling its development.

The 40-year-old man, Abdur Rahman, was detained last week for converting to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refuses to become a Muslim again, judicial officials say.

Death is the punishment stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy. The Afghan legal system is based on a mix of civil and sharia law.

The case has sparked an outcry in North America and Europe.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone to President Hamid Karzai yesterday and told him the United States wanted Afghanistan to show it respects religious freedom and quickly resolve Rahman's case.

President George W Bush has vowed to use US leverage over Afghanistan to make sure Rahman's right to choose his religion is upheld.

Several other countries with troops in Afghanistan, including Canada, Italy, Germany and Australia, have voiced their concern.

Some foreign critics have urged that their troops be withdrawn.

The Canadian government, which has also been in contact with the Afghan president, said yesterday that Karzai had pledged that Rahman would not be executed. A presidential spokesman in Kabul declined to comment but said a statement would be issued later today.

Analysts say they doubt the man will be executed and his case could hinge on interpretations of the country's new constitution, which says ''no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of the constitution''.

It also says Afghanistan will abide by international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines freedom of religion, and thus the freedom to change one's religion.

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