Under mounting foreign pressure, President Hamid Karzai was grappling Saturday to find a way to free an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity without angering powerful Muslim clerics who have called for him to be killed, officials said.
Top officials have said Abdul Rahman, who faces a possible death sentence for alleged apostasy, will be released soon, but clerics have questioned Karzai's authority to order his release and have warned of a possible revolt if he tries.
"The Koran is very clear and the words of our prophet are very clear. There can only be one outcome: death," said cleric Khoja Ahmad Sediqi, who is also a member of the Supreme Court. "If Karzai releases him, it will play into the hands of our enemy and there could be an uprising."
Rahman is being prosecuted under Afghanistan's Islamic laws for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The case has put Karzai in an awkward position.
While the United States, Britain and other countries that prop up his government have demanded Rahman's release, the president would be reluctant to offend Islamic sensibilities at home or alienate religious conservatives who wield considerable power.
A respected cleric in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Mohammed Qasim, said, "We don't care if the West drops its support for us. God will look after Afghanistan."
The chief judge overseeing Rahman's trial has asserted the court's independence.
"We will continue with the trial as is my responsibility under the constitution," said Ansarullah Mawlavi Zada, who like most judges in Afghanistan, is also a cleric.
Asked about Rahman's health, the judge said it was "all right."
Authorities have barred journalists from seeing the 41-year-old defendant at a rundown central Kabul detention facility, where prisoners are packed into tiny, overcrowded cells and often rely on food handouts from relatives.
Diplomats have said the Afghan government is searching for a way to drop the case without inflaming tension here. Authorities said Rahman is suspected of being mentally ill and would undergo psychological examinations to see whether he is fit to stand trial.
An official at Karzai's palace said the president and several Cabinet ministers discussed Rahman's case on Saturday, but she declined to comment on the outcome. Hours earlier, another official said Rahman "could be released soon." Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.
The trial highlights a conflict of values between Afghanistan and its Western backers — notably American Christians who cheered the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush when it toppled the oppressive Taliban regime in late 2001.
Bush expressed alarm about the case this week, but Christian lobby groups have urged him to do more.
Legal experts have said that the case against Rahman is based on contradictory laws.
Afghanistan's constitution is based on Shariah law, which states that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be sentenced to death, according to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
But the constitution adds that "the state shall abide by the ... Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Article 18 of the Declaration guarantees the freedom to worship and to "change" religion or belief.