Italy may offer asylum to Afghan Christian convert

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The Independent Online

Italy is considering granting asylum to Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who was released from jail yesterday in Kabul, where he had faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity.

He was staying in a safe house last night after prosecutors dropped the case against him under intense international pressure. But Mr Rahman will have to flee the country for his own safety, after several leading Muslim clerics called on Afghans to kill him.

Mr Rahman appealed for help to leave Afghanistan, and he is thought most likely to go to Italy, where the Foreign Minister, Gianfranco Fini is to ask the cabinet today to grant him asylum.

The case against him was dropped after the prosecution submitted that he was "mentally unfit to stand trial", but that was clearly a legal pretext to end a case that was proving a major international embarrassment to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Mr Fini was one of the first foreign politicians to take up the case of Mr Rahman, and Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for his release. Italy has close ties to Afghanistan, having provided a home for the former king Mohammed Zahir Shah during his 30 years in exile. There is a possibility that Mr Rahman will go to Germany, where he has lived before, and the United Nations says it is trying to help find a country to take him.

The controversy in Afghanistan is far from over. In the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif, which has been relatively peaceful, protesters chanted: "Death to Christianity!" In the city of Kunduz, a senior cleric, Faiez Mohammed, said: "Abdul Rahman must be killed. Islam demands it. The Christian foreigners occupying Afghanistan are attacking our religion."

The case has exposed the stark differences between Afghan society and President Karzai's Western allies. Mr Rahman was charged with apostasy for converting to Christianity 16 years ago, while he was a medical aid worker with a Christian NGO that was working in Pakistan.

Under Afghanistan's strict Islamic laws, apostasy carries the death sentence. But President Karzai's government was installed after the defeat of the hardline Taliban regime by US-led forces in 2001, and is entirely dependent on the thousands of American and Nato troops stationed in Afghanistan, and on Western financial support.

There was an international outcry over the case, and once President Karzai's main backer, the US, joined the calls for Mr Rahman's freedom of religion to be respected, the Afghan authorities had little choice but to drop it.

Mr Karzai has avoided making a public comment, but many Afghans predict his government will face a backlash for caving in to Western demands.