The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

U.S. ups pressure in Afghan Christian convert case

Friday March 24, 07:46 AM

By Saul Hudson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States told Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday it wanted Afghanistan to show it respects religious freedom and quickly resolve the case of a man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone to Karzai about the case, which has stirred international protests and angered President George W. Bush's evangelical supporters at a time when U.S. troops are fighting anti-government Islamic extremists in the country.

Bush had on Wednesday vowed to use U.S. leverage over Afghanistan to make sure Abdur Rahman's right to choose his religion was upheld.

"We have raised it at the highest levels ... and we have raised it in the strongest possible terms," Rice told reporters after the call. "We look forward hopefully to a resolution of this in the very near future."

Rice, who noted the United States was founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution, did not answer a question asking if Karzai assured her that Rahman would not be executed.

Under foreign pressure, reinforced by several U.S. allies supporting Afghanistan with aid and troops, Karzai has pledged Rahman would not be executed, according to the Canadian government, which was also in contact with the Afghan president.

A judge has said the man was jailed for converting and could face death if he refused to become a Muslim again. Afghanistan's judiciary reiterated Thursday it would not bow to outside pressure.

But the United States, which has more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, urged Karzai to intervene.

State Department officials, who for days have emphasized the case was up to the Afghan government to resolve, could not say if Rice raised the issue when she met Afghanistan's foreign minister on Monday.

CONSERVATIVE CONCERN

U.S. Christian conservatives, a key support base for Bush, have become increasingly vocal as the Bush administration has failed so far to have the man freed.

"It's deeply disturbing that this incident is taking place in a country that America continues to protect and defend," the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group that often focuses on Christian issues, said in a statement.

The Bush administration initially responded less forcefully than governments such as Italy and Germany.

Bush first spoke in public about the case on Wednesday -- days after it won wide media attention and stirred outrage among his supporters.

Bush has been criticized for reacting slowly in recent months to other controversies, such as a port management deal with a Middle Eastern company.

The case is also sensitive for Karzai. He depends on foreign troops to battle Taliban and al Qaeda militants, and on aid to support the economy, but also has to take into consideration the views of conservative proponents of Islamic law.

Death is one of the punishments stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy. The legal system is based on a mix of civil and sharia law in Afghanistan, where 99 per cent of its more than 25 million people are Muslim.

A possible compromise solution, hinted at by Afghan officials, is for the convict to avoid further punishment on the grounds he is mentally ill.

That would not satisfy the United States.

"We think that it is important for the Afghan people that this issue of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the Afghan constitution, be reaffirmed," Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, told reporters.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul, David Ljunggren in Ottawa)

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