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Afghan paper calls for release of Christian convert

Written by: Staff
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KABUL, Mar 26 (Reuters) An Afghan newspaper called today for the release of a man facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity, saying Afghanistan cannot confront the international community over the issue.

The editorial in the Outlook Afghanistan newspaper was the first public call in Afghanistan for the release of Abdur Rahman, 40, following a clamour from religious conservatives for him to be tried under Islamic law for abandoning Islam.

Afghanistan's Western-backed government is struggling to come up with a solution to the controversy that will satisfy US and other Western demands for Rahman's release, while not angering powerful conservatives at home, who want to see him punished. ''At this moment when Afghanistan needs the support of the international community to fight terrorism and carry on the rebuilding process of a ruined country, is it wise to confront the whole international community?'' the newspaper asked.

''Afghanistan cannot live in isolation anymore,'' it said in the editorial, which carried a headline calling for Rahman's freedom. The newspaper is funded by a member of parliament who used to lead a faction during civil war in the 1990s.

The controversy threatens to drive a wedge between Afghanistan and its Western backers who ensure its security and finance its development. Some Western critics have called for the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops from Afghanistan.

Pope Benedict became the latest Western leader to call for clemency for Rahman, the Italian news agency ANSA said yesterday.

The pontiff had sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai ''which appeals for respect for human rights sanctioned in the preamble of the new Afghan constitution,'' it said.

But international pressure on Afghanistan to respect Rahman's religious freedom and release him from jail has been met in Afghanistan by calls for him to be tried under Islamic law and executed, and a threat of rebellion if the government frees him.

Analysts say Karzai is in a difficult position but they expect something will be worked out and Rahman will not be executed.

''WE'RE PROCEEDING'' Rahman was detained this month for converting to Christianity.

Death is the punishment stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy.

The Afghan legal system is based on a mixture of civil and sharia law.

Rahma n told a preliminary hearing about 10 days ago he had become a Christian while working for an aid group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan 15 years ago. He later lived in Germany before returning to Afghanistan.

He was detained after his family told authorities he had converted, apparently following a family dispute involving two daughters, a judicial official said.

The judge presiding over the case, Ansarullah Mawlavizada, reiterated today that the judicial system would not be swayed by outside pressure.

''We're proceeding according to the law,'' he told Reuters.

He said no date had been fixed for the start of Rahman's trial but it was expected in the next few days.

Mawlavizada said Rahman did not want a lawyer and would defend himself.

Government spokesmen declined to comment on the case.

A prosecutor has raised questions about Rahman's mental state, and a judge said that could be taken into account. Rahman has denied he is mentally unstable.

REUTERS DKS RS1559

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