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Afghan Christian convert thanks Italy, Pope

Written by: Staff

ROME, Mar 30 (Reuters) An Afghan Christian convert who took asylum in Italy to escape a possible death sentence for apostasy thanked the Rome government and the Pope today for leading an international campaign for his release.

Abdur Rahman, 40, was jailed this month for abandoning Islam and could have faced trial under Islamic sharia law that stipulates death as punishment for apostasy.

Rahman's exact whereabouts are being kept secret but today he gave a recorded television interview at a police station, with cameras only showing his back.

Asked why he had decided to convert to Christianity, Rahman, who was speaking in broken English, said: ''Because I read the Bible and I became convinced of the goodness of this religion.'' ''I thank the Pope, the Italian government and all those who have been involved in my case. I am happy to be here.'' He added he felt ''persecuted'' in his country and feared for the safety of his family, whom he said were in Kabul. Italian media also reported him as saying he never wanted to return to Afghanistan.

Rahman was freed from prison on Tuesday after pressure from Western states whose troops helped bring the Afghan government to power, and on Wednesday arrived in Italy where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had offered him asylum.

News of Rahman's departure from Afghanistan on Wednesday came hours after members of the Afghan parliament condemned his release and said he should not be allowed to leave the country.

Rahman's jailing raised a storm of protest in the West, with Italy, Germany, the United States and Canada -- all countries with troops in Afghanistan -- leading calls for his religious freedom to be respected and for him to be released.

Pope Benedict also called for clemency.

In Italy, politicians of all colours gave their backing to Berlusconi's asylum offer, even though one member of the centre-left opposition accused him of ''propaganda'' ahead of a general election on April 9-10.

In Afghanistan, however, many religious conservatives had demanded Rahman be punished under Islamic law, with some warning of rebellion if the government gave in to Western pressure and released him.


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