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Afghan Christian Convert Flees to Italy

The Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity received asylum in Italy Wednesday, despite requests by lawmakers in Afghanistan that he be barred from fleeing the conservative Muslim country.

Abdul Rahman arrived in Rome days after he was freed from a high-security prison on the outskirts of Kabul after a court dropped charges of apostasy against him for lack of evidence and suspected mental illness.

The case has attracted wide attention in the West and led to calls by the U.S. and other governments for the Afghan government to protect the 41-year-old convert.

It also inspired an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and efforts by the United Nations to find a country to take him in after Muslim clerics in Afghanistan threatened his life, saying his conversion was a "betrayal to Islam."

Rahman was in the care of Italy's Interior Ministry, Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday evening. "He is already in Italy," he said. "I think he arrived overnight."

The premier declined to release more details. The Interior Ministry said Rahman was "under protection."

Conversion is a crime under Afghanistan's Islamic law. Rahman was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible. He was brought to trial last week and faced the death penalty for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Under heavy international pressure by the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime and provide aid and military support for Karzai, Rahman was released from prison Monday.

President Bush and others had insisted Afghanistan protect personal beliefs. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Karzai last week and appealed for a "favorable resolution" of the case.

Afghanistan's new parliament debated Rahman's case Wednesday and demanded he be barred from leaving the country. But no formal vote was taken on the issue.

Some 500 Afghans, including Muslim leaders and students, also gathered at a mosque in the southern town of Qalat, in Zabul province, to demand the convert be forced to return to Islam or be killed.

"This is a terrible thing and a major shame for Afghanistan," Zabul's top cleric Abdulrahman Jan said.

Germany, where Rahman once lived, praised the Italian move.

"This is a humanitarian signal and we welcome it," German government spokesman Thomas Steg said.

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said Tuesday that granting asylum would bring "all the forms of protection and assistance" related to recognizing refugee status.

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.

Italian troops were sent into Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2001 to help with reconstruction and Italy still has 1,775 troops there.

Rahman's ordeal began as a custody dispute over his two daughters, now 13 and 14. The girls had lived with their grandparents their whole lives but Rahman sought custody when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after living in Germany for nine years. A custody battle ensued and the matter was taken to police.

During questioning, it emerged that Rahman was a Christian and was carrying a Bible. He was immediately arrested and charged.

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