KABUL, Afghanistan – Senior Muslim clerics said Thursday that an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity must be executed and if the government caves into Western pressure and frees him they will incite people to "pull him into pieces."
The trial of Abdul Rahman 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 hardline regime was ousted in 2001.
Rahman, a 41-year old former medical aid worker, faces the death penalty under Afghanistan's Islamic laws for becoming a Christian. His trial, which began last week, has caused an international outcry. U.S. President George W. Bush has said he is "deeply troubled" by the case and expects the country to "honor the universal principle of freedom."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that she received assurances from Afghan President Hamid 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 and "I hope we will be able to resolve this," Merkel said going into pre-EU summit talks.
Diplomats have said the Afghan government was searching for a way to drop the case, and on Wednesday authorities said 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 Shiite one interviewed by The Associated Press in four of Kabul's most popular mosques said they don't 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, saying, "The government are 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 outside Afghanistan.
But Said Mirhossain Nasri, the top cleric at Hossainia Mosque, one of the largest Shiite 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."
Meanwhile, human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement, saying that if Rahman has been detained solely for his religious beliefs, he would be a "prisoner of conscience."
"The charges against him should be dropped and if necessary he should be protected against any abuses within the community," the London-based group said.
Rahman is believed to have lived in Germany for nine years after converting to Christianity while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He returned to Kabul in 2002.
It was not immediately clear when Rahman's trial will resume. Authorities have barred attempts by the AP to see him and he is not believed to have a lawyer.