While an outraged Italy is threatening troop withdrawal over the situation, the United States government is cautiously monitoring Afghanistan’s prosecution of a Christian who faces the death penalty because he converted from Islam.

State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus told WorldNetDaily U.S. officials will follow Abdul Rahman’s case closely and raise the issue with Afghan officials.

“We believe it is important that the Afghan authorities handle the case in a transparent manner,” she said. “Freedom of religion is fundamental to the existence of democracy and is protected under the Afghan constitution. It must be protected and practiced as well.”

Afghan Supreme Court judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada said Sunday that Rahman, 42, is being tried over his conversion from Islam to Christianity some 16 years ago. His relatives reportedly notified authorities about the conversion.

The constitution in Afghanistan is based on Sharia law, which states any Muslim who rejects his or her religion should be sentenced to death.

Prosecutor Abdul Wasi called Rahman a traitor, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“He is known as a microbe in
society, and he should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim
society and should be killed,” Wasi said.

At a State Department briefing yesterday, spokesman Sean McCormack responded to a question about Rahman, saying the U.S. brought up the case with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah and is encouraging the government “to conduct any legal proceedings in a transparent and a fair manner.”

The reporter replied that it sounded as if the U.S. is only requesting fair play, asking, “Why don’t you simply ask that it be cancelled? I mean, what possible justification is there for putting someone on trial for changing his religion?”

McCormack responded that “this is a question of the Afghan constitution and its laws.”

“There are differing interpretations of it, and I think that that’s the issue with which they’re trying to grapple with,” the spokesman said.

In Rome, meanwhile, the Italian government confronted the Afghan ambassador, indicating Italy would withdraw troops unless Rahman is spared. Two of Germany’s cabinet members said they would intervene in the case if necessary, Reuters reported.

Italy’s 1,775 troops and Germany’s 2,700 in Afghanistan are helping the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai defend against remnants of al-Qaida and the former Taliban regime.

The Afghan judge Mawlavizada insisted Afghanistan is not against any particular religion, but “this sort of thing is against the law.”

“It is an attack on Islam,” he said, according to the Associated Press. ” … The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty.”

If sentenced, Rahman apparently would be the first person punished for leaving Islam since the Taliban was ousted by American-led forces in late 2001.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “If this news is confirmed, Italy will move at the highest level … to prevent something which is incompatible with the defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Cossiga wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi urging him to secure Rahman’s safety.

“It is not acceptable that our soldiers should put themselves at risk or even sacrifice their lives for a fundamentalist, illiberal regime,” Cossiga wrote.

German Development Minister Heide Wieczorek-Zeul told Germany’s daily Bild newspaper her government would do “everything possible to save the life of Abdul Rahman.”

The paper said Rahman’s conversion came during a nine-year stay in Germany.

Wieczorek-Zeul said she would appeal to Karzai directly.

Expressing “deep concern,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper his embassy in Kabul was in close contact with the Afghan government over this issue and promised to intervene if necessary.

In Britain, parliament member Alan Simpson of the Labour Party told the Times of London: “We are asked to believe that in Afghanistan we are defending a more secular and democratic state when in fact the likes of Abdul Rahman face the death penalty. What sort of democracy are we defending? All reports suggest that the Taliban are coming in through the back door and their views through the front door. Hamid Karzai needs to be told that this absurdity must stop.”

Rahman’s 75-year-old father, however, believes his son must be punished.

“We are Muslim, our fathers were Muslim, our grandfathers were Muslim,” said Abdul Manan, according to the Chicago Tribune. “This is an Islamic country. Imagine if your son told a police commander, also a Muslim, that he is a Christian. How would this affect you? It’s very difficult for us.”

The Times said Rahman worked with an international Christian group in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the Afghan border, for four years then spent the next nine in Germany.

He encountered problems when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 and tried to recover two teenaged daughters who were living with his parents in Kabul.

Rahman’s father resisted, denouncing his son as a convert and reporting him to police. Rahman immediately was arrested and a Bible was found in his possession.

Prosecutor Abdul Wasi says he offered to drop the charges if Rahman returned to Islam, but the defendant is maintaining his Christian beliefs. The judge is expected to rule within two months.

About 99 percent of Afghanistan’s 28 million people are Muslims, with the rest mostly Hindus.

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