KABUL, Afghanistan – An Afghan man who had faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity quickly vanished Tuesday after he was released from prison, apparently out of fear for his life with Muslim clerics still demanding his death.
The United Nations said it is working to find a country willing to grant asylum to Abdul Rahman, who has appealed to leave Afghanistan. Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini will ask his government to accept Rahman, the Italian government said in a statement.
Rahman, 41, was released from the high-security Policharki prison on the outskirts of Kabul late Monday, Afghan Justice Minister Mohammed Sarwar Danish told The Associated Press.
"We released him last night because the prosecutors told us to," he said. "His family was there when he was freed, but I don't know where he was taken."
Deputy Attorney-General Mohammed Eshak Aloko said prosecutors had issued a letter calling for Rahman's release because "he was mentally unfit to stand trial." He also said he did not know where Rahman had gone after being released.
He said Rahman may be sent overseas for medical treatment.
On Monday, hundreds of clerics, students and others chanting "Death to Christians!" marched through the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif to protest the court decision Sunday to dismiss the case. Several Muslim clerics threatened to incite Afghans to kill Rahman if he is freed, saying that he is clearly guilty of apostasy and deserves to die.
"Abdul Rahman must be killed. Islam demands it," said senior Cleric Faiez Mohammed, from the nearby northern city of Kunduz. "The Christian foreigners occupying Afghanistan are attacking our religion."
Rahman was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible during a custody dispute over his two daughters. He was put on trial last week for converting 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He faced the death penalty under Afghanistan's Islamic laws.
The case set off an outcry in the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. President Bush and others had insisted Afghanistan protect personal beliefs.
U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards said Rahman has asked for asylum outside Afghanistan.
"We expect this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case," he said.
Fini, the Italian foreign minister who is also deputy premier, will seek permission to grant Rahman asylum at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Fini had earlier expressed Italy's "indignation" over the case. Pope Benedict XVI also appealed to Karzai to protect Rahman.
Italy has close ties with Afghanistan, whose former king, Mohammed Zaher Shah, was allowed to live with his family in exile in Rome for 30 years. The former royals returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime a few years ago.
Asked whether the U.S. government was doing anything to secure Rahman's safety after his release, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that where he goes after being freed is "up to Mr. Rahman." He urged Afghans not to resort to violence even if they are unhappy with the resolution of the case.
The international outrage over Rahman's case put Karzai in a difficult position because he also risked offending religious sensibilities in Afghanistan, where senior Muslim clerics have been united in calling for Rahman to be executed.