Former President Bush with Afghan chief Hamid Karzai
Five countries are appealing to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to prevent two Afghan men who converted to Christianity from being sentenced to death for "apostasy" -- their decisions to abandon Islam.
Representatives from the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Italy have been in contact with Karzai to ask for release and safe passage for Shoiad Assadullah and Sayed Musa.
Assadullah has been in jail since Oct. 21 after his arrest in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Musa has been detained since his arrest last May.
International Christian Concern's Middle East Specialist Aidan Clay said Assadullah's case is urgent.
"The case that concerns us most now is Shoiad Assadullah. He was brought to court in late December and was told he would have one week to recant his faith in Christianity and return to Islam. Otherwise he would be given the death penalty," Clay explained.
Clay said Assadullah has been denied the right of legal representation and has been charged with apostasy, a crime that Clay points out isn't in the Afghanistan criminal code.
"The second court date was Jan. 4, but fortunately the attorney general in Afghanistan intervened. We can only assume that was because of foreign pressure in the country," Clay said.
Clay reports that confidential sources in the U.S. State Department say that Assadullah's case is "on the radar."
Clay said that outside pressure was responsible for Musa being moved to a safer prison.
"In the first prison where he was held, he was abused, actually sexually abused by the other inmates because he was a Christian," Clay reported.
Clay said that even with the outside pressure, the fate of the two men is in doubt.
"We aren't sure of what's going to happen, but we do know that the Afghan legal system is determined to give them the very harsh penalty of the death sentence for apostasy," Clay stated.
"The only reason that hasn't happened yet is because of international intervention," he added.
Listen to an interview with Clay:
Italy is one of the other countries pressing for release of the two Christian men in Afghanistan.
Speaking on behalf of the Italian government, Italian Sen. Lucio Malan said in a statement that Italy stands with the men.
"At this particular moment of awareness and commitment to religious freedom, Italy cannot remain indifferent to the case of Shoaib Assadullah, an Afghan who risks the death penalty or 20 years in prison for having converted to Christianity, according to apostasy law in force in Afghanistan," the senator stated.
The senator said he will ask the Italian ministers of foreign affairs and defense to intervene.
"Italy has done and is doing much for Afghanistan, and it is very difficult to think that those who receive our help implement a law in such a flagrant violation of basic human rights," he said.
Clay said he believes the only reason that both Assadullah and Musa haven't been given the death sentence yet is because of the interest from other nations.
"After an almost 10-year presence in their country fighting for democracy and fighting for human rights, the fact that Afghan judges still have the mindset that they did under the days of the Taliban shows us that there's been very little progress in Afghanistan's judicial system," Clay observed.
Still, Clay said that any publicity about the men's case is a positive step.
"We need to ensure that whatever happens to Shoiad Assadullah and Sayed Musa, we need to make it public so we can expose and condemn it very loudly," he said.
"The last thing we want is for these guys to be executed in secret where the Afghan people don't hear about it. With exposure comes awareness," Clay added. "Also something comes that is like tolerance, eventually. That's the hope at least. So we need to publicly condemn it and expose it so these lives will not have been in vain."
Afghan authorities have increased their anti-Christian actions after a television program showed Afghan Christian converts being baptized.
"The crackdown also led to the arrests of four Christians in Heart on Aug. 9, including a South African and a Korean-American. All four have been released as a result of outside pressure. None of those arrested was offered due process of law," Clay said.
"The overall mindset towards non-Muslims and the overall mindset towards democracy are like the days of the Taliban. There has been a progression of the Taliban taking over and Islamic fundamentalism coming into the country," he said. "The only way we're going to see change is if the Afghan people can see beyond their own cultural norms, which are rooted in the philosophy of the Taliban. To see change, we need to encourage education."
Clay believes that education will expose the people to a wider range of ideas.
"Until there is a broader worldview in the Afghan mindset; until they're able to think outside this very narrow-minded box the Taliban have put them in; and see that there are other religions, ideas and ideologies, and see that there is a broader world, we're not going to see any change," Clay said.