ROME – An Afghan who faced the death penalty in his homeland for converting from Islam to Christianity said Thursday he was certain he would have been killed had he stayed there, and he thanked Pope Benedict XVI for intervening on his behalf.
"In Kabul, they would have killed me, I'm sure of it," said Abdul Rahman, who was spirited out of Afghanistan to a secret location in Italy. "If you are not a Muslim in an Islamic country like mine, they kill you. There are no doubts."
He said his case was to serve as an example "to others who dared rebel."
Rahman's comments, in a short interview to Italian journalists, came hours after Italy formally granted him asylum, citing religious persecution, the ministry said.
Video on Italian television evening news showed a few people gathered around a small table. It never showed Rahman's face and the Interior Ministry has said that Rahman was "under protection."
Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Rahman arrived in Italy before dawn Wednesday, hours before the conservative leader announced that the government would take him in.
His 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 convert.
The pope had appealed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the United Nations sought a country to take him in after Muslim clerics in Afghanistan threatened his life, saying his conversion was a "betrayal to Islam."
Benedict wrote to Karzai on March 22 that dropping the case "would bestow great honor upon the Afghan people and would raise a chorus of admiration in the international community."
Since his arrival in Italy, the Vatican has made no comment. There was no indication of any plan to arrange a meeting between Rahman and the pope.
"Thanks to the (Italian) government. And thanks to Pope Benedict XVI. The pontiff took an interest in my case, and thanks to him, the U.N. intervened," Rahman told reporters.
He was released from prison Monday after a court dismissed charges of apostasy against him for of a lack of evidence and suspicions he might be mentally ill.
Conversion is a crime under Afghanistan's Islamic law. Rahman, 41, was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible. He was brought to trial last week for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Rahman also said he was worried for his family, still in Afghanistan.
"On the streets, you still have Taliban and they kill those who are not Muslims," Rahman said. "I'm a father. My children are still there."
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 battle for his two daughters, now 13 and 14. The girls lived with their grandparents, but Rahman sought custody when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after living in Germany for nine years. The matter was later taken to police, and during questioning, it emerged that Rahman was a Christian and was carrying a Bible. He was immediately arrested and charged.