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Afghan clerics urge execution of Christian convert on trial

Rice appeals for a 'favorable resolution' to case

KABUL -- Senior Muslim clerics demanded yesterday that an Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity be executed, warning that if the government caves in to Western pressure and frees him, they will incite people to ''pull him into pieces."

In an unusual move, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned President Hamid Karzai yesterday seeking a ''favorable resolution" of the case of Abdul Rahman. The 41-year-old former medical aid worker faces the death penalty under Afghanistan's Islamic laws for becoming a Christian.

His trial has fired passions in this conservative Muslim nation and highlighted a conflict of values between Afghanistan and its Western backers.

''Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die," said cleric Abdul Raoulf, who is considered a moderate and was jailed three times for opposing the Taliban before the hard-line regime was ousted in 2001.

The trial, which began last week, has caused an international outcry. President Bush has said he is ''deeply troubled" by the case and expects the country to ''honor the universal principle of freedom."

Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said she told Karzai it is important for the Afghan people to know that freedom of religion is observed in their country. But in deference to the country's sovereignty, Rice evidently did not demand specifically that the trial be halted and the defendant released.

''This is clearly an Afghan decision," McCormack said. ''They are a sovereign country."

Still, Rice's direct appeal to a foreign leader in a judicial proceeding in their own country is an unusual move.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told reporters she had received assurances from Karzai in a telephone call that Rahman would not be sentenced to death.

''I have the impression that he [Karzai] has a firm willingness" to abide by the human rights requirements, Merkel said going into pre-European Union summit talks. ''I hope we will be able to resolve this."

Diplomats have said the Afghan government is searching for a way to drop the case. Authorities said Wednesday that Rahman is suspected of being mentally ill and would undergo psychological examinations to see whether he is fit to stand trial.

But three Sunni preachers and a Shi'ite preacher interviewed by The Associated Press in four of Kabul's most popular mosques said they do not believe Rahman is insane.

''He is not crazy. He went in front of the media and confessed to being a Christian," said Hamidullah, chief cleric at Haji Yacob Mosque.

''The government is scared of the international community. But the people will kill him if he is freed."

Raoulf, who is a member of the country's main Islamic organization, the Afghan Ulama Council, agreed. ''The government is playing games. The people will not be fooled."

''Cut off his head!" he exclaimed, sitting in a courtyard outside Herati Mosque. ''We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there's nothing left."

He said the only way for Rahman to survive would be for him to go into exile.

But Said Mirhossain Nasri, the top cleric at Hossainia Mosque, one of the largest Shi'ite places of worship in Kabul, said Rahman must not be allowed to leave the country.

''If he is allowed to live in the West, then others will claim to be Christian so they can too," he said. ''We must set an example. . . . He must be hanged."

The clerics said they were angry with the United States and other countries for pushing for Rahman's freedom.

''We are a small country and we welcome the help the outside world is giving us. But please don't interfere in this issue," Nasri said. ''We are Muslims and these are our beliefs. This is much more important to us than all the aid the world has given us."

Afghanistan's constitution is based on Shariah law, which is interpreted by many Muslims to require that any Muslim who rejects Islam be sentenced to death.

Hamidullah warned that if the government frees Rahman, ''there will be an uprising" like one against Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. ''The government will lose the support of the people," he said. ''What sort of democracy would it be if the government ignored the will of all the people."

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