MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, Mar 31 (Reuters) Afghan clerics blamed meddling foreigners today for the release of a Christian convert who they said should be executed for abandoning Islam.
The convert, Abdur Rahman, was spirited out of Afghanistan to asylum in Italy on Wednesday, a day after he was released from jail following a storm of protest in the United States and other Western countries over his treatment.
''Why does the international community interfere in our internal affairs? Why do they interfere in our judicial affairs?'' cleric Mohammad Sediq asked his congregation at Friday prayers in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
''It undermines Islam and our constitution,'' he said.
Rahman, 40, was jailed this month for converting to Christianity and could have faced trial under Islamic sharia law that stipulates death as punishment for apostasy.
The United States led a chorus of Western demands for his release and the United Nations helped the government resolve the case and secure Rahman's asylum in Italy.
But many conservatives in Afghanistan had insisted Rahman be tried under Islamic law. The Afghan parliament had said his release had been illegal and he should not be allowed to leave the country.
''We know the convert was released by the top people,'' Sediq said, referring to the government. ''However, foreign hands were also involved.'' ''This was only the start of such plots in Afghanistan. Lots of other converts will reveal themselves as they think they won't be followed up by the authorities.'' Another prayer leader in Mazar-i-Sharif, Qari Abdul Hakim, said Rahman's release was a blow to Islam and he should have been hanged in public.
''This was a plot hatched by foreign countries,'' said Hakim, adding that Italy should send Rahman back.
''Do we interfere in foreign countries' affairs? Of course we don't. Therefore, they must stop this and we ask the Afghan attorney-general to resume Rahman's case and put him on trail.'' ''A CRUSADE'' Clerics in the eastern town of Ghazni also criticised foreign interference with one saying the West had launched a new crusade.
''The West has began a crusade, an indirect one, by pressuring Afghanistan to release him,'' said cleric Sayed Ghulam Sakhi Asghari, who is a member of a government-appointed clerical council.
As he spoke worshippers chanted ''Allahu akbar'' (God is Greatest). Some said: ''Death to the apostate, death to the traitors''.
''If the West wants to stop aid for us for executing Rahman, so be it. We don't want their help, we want Islamic law to be implemented,'' Asghari said.
A group of clerics in the southeastern town of Khost issued a statement denouncing what they called Italian interference and demanded Rahman be sent back and executed.
Rahman's exact whereabouts in Italy are being kept secret but on Thursday he gave a recorded television interview at a police station, with cameras only showing his back.
He thanked Italy and the Pope for leading an international campaign for his release.
He said he felt persecuted in his country and feared for the safety of his family in Kabul. Italian media also reported him as saying he never wanted to return to Afghanistan.
REUTERS SY RAI1843