Germany Gripped

It may be taking place thousands of miles away, but the trial of an Afghan convert to Christianity in Kabul and a possible looming death sentence have whipped up emotions in Germany and other Western nations. Sonia Phalnikar reports

It may be taking place thousands of miles away, but the trial of an Afghan convert to Christianity in Kabul and a possible looming death sentence have whipped up emotions in Germany and other Western nations. Sonia Phalnikar

Street scene in Kabul (photo: dpa)
Afghanistan is a conservative Islamic country and 99 percent of its citizens are Muslims

​​An Afghan judge said on Sunday that 40-year-old Abdul Rahman had been jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again. Under Sharia law, renouncing the religion of Islam is a crime punishable by death, although Islam respects the right of Christians and Jews to practice their faith.

Rahman told a judge at a preliminary hearing last week he became a Christian while working for an aid group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan 15 years ago.

"I'm not an apostate. I'm obedient to God but I'm a Christian, that's my choice," Rahman told the hearing.

The case has sparked alarm in Germany, the US and Italy - all NATO countries with peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan. German politicians weighed into the debate this week which has increasingly drawn the battle lines between religious conservatives in Afghanistan and western diplomats pushing a reformist agenda.

Abdul Rahman (photo: AP)
Abdul Rahman faces the death sentence for converting to Christianity

​​"We will do everything possible to save the life of Abdul Rahman," German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul told the Bild newspaper.

Christoph Strässer, spokesman on human rights for the Social Democrats, part of Germany's governing coalition, said it was no surprise that the issue had inflamed passions in Germany, a country which is deeply involved in Afghanistan's postwar reconstruction and peacekeeping and currently has 2,700 soldiers deployed there.

"For one, Germany is fundamentally against the death sentence, independent of whether it's sanctioned by different cultures," Strässer said. "And secondly, religious freedom is extremely precious to us and should be respected by an Islamic society too."

"Serious democracy deficits"

Several German conservative and liberal politicians, however, want the government to step up pressure on the Afghan government by threatening to pull out German troops, freeze development aid and to review traditionally close ties between Kabul and Berlin.

"The case is absolutely unbearable and isn't compatible with Western values especially when Western nations are so involved in securing the peace there and pumping in aid money," said Erika Steinbach, spokeswoman on human rights for the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union.

"It's a particularly crass case of Christian persecution and just the tip of the iceberg," she added, pointing out that if Afghanistan went ahead with the death sentence it would show that the country "has serious democracy deficits."

Test for Afghan democracy

Indeed, the Abdul Rahman case is being billed as a test for Afghanistan's path towards democracy, a stance staunchly advocated by pro-western president Hamid Karzai.

Starting in 2004, Afghanistan - with Western help - ushered in a new reformed constitution, after which it elected a new parliament and created a Supreme Court and an independent legal system - steps considered essential in what the US administration calls "nation-building."

But, experts warn about the dangers of flaunting Afghanistan as a poster-child for spreading democracy to former totalitarian countries. More than four years after the fall of the Taliban, the country remains riddled with corruption and cronyism linked to the country's administrative system and $2.8 billion (2.3 billion euros) drug industry.

"One shouldn't forget that Karzai had to make several concessions to ultra-conservatives in drawing up the constitution," said Citha Maass, Afghanistan expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Maass pointed out that the Rahman case highlighted the contradictions in Afghanistan's constitution, which enshrines religious freedom on the one hand and upholds the supremacy of Islamic Sharia law on the other.

"The problem is that Sharia law has never been codified in Afghan society and so every Mullah interprets it the way he wants it. And the absolute guardian is the Supreme Court which has several hardline members and a very conservative outlook," Maass added.

The Afghanistan expert also pointed out that recent protests over controversial cartoons published in European newspapers had been the most violent in Afghanistan.

"After 30 years of war, the Afghans still have to learn democratic behavior. It can't happen overnight," she said.

Strengthening Karzai

Most agree that pressure has to be stepped up on Karzai's government to stop Rahman being sentenced to death, but not by threatening to pull out troops and halting aid.

"That would be totally counterproductive and send a fatal signal to all those involved in rebuilding Afghanistan," said the SPD's Strässer, who added it would inflict needless pain on the population.

"At the end of the day, it's the Afghan president who has to sign and approve the death sentence and that's where we should raise the pressure - by making him say clearly whose side he's on," said Strässer.

"It won't be easy with all the fundamentalists against him and he'll need the West's support and we'll have to strengthen him," he said. "But that's where the real test lies."

US President adds voice

US President George W. Bush said Wednesday he would pressure Kabul over the "deeply troubling" case of an Afghan man facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity.

"We have got influence in Afghanistan and we are going to use it," Bush said.

"It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would
hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another."

In a speech on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush praised Afghan leaders for pursuing democratic reforms but warned: "We expect them to honor the universal principle of freedom."

"I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship," he said about the case, which has drawn increasing attention in the United States.

Sonia Phalnikar


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