Italy, citing religious persecution, on Thursday formally granted asylum to an Afghan man who had faced the death penalty in his homeland for converting from Islam to Christianity, the Interior Ministry said.

Abdul Rahman, who was under protection after being spirited out of Afghanistan to a secret location in Italy earlier in the week, had his application approved by an Interior Ministry commission because "he was persecuted for religious reasons," the ministry said, citing the 1961 Geneva Convention on refugees.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Rahman arrived in Italy before dawn Wednesday, hours before the conservative leader announced that the Italian government would take in the man, whom he praised as "courageous."

The Italian Cabinet has also approved the asylum bid.

An Italian Muslim leader expressed appreciation for Italy's coming to Rahman's aid, and said there were no protests planned in Italy.

"From our point of view, apostasy is a grave sin, but one will do penance for it in the afterlife, not on earth," said Mario Scialoja, Rome-based president of the Muslim World League.

Italy's 1.1 million Muslims are a relatively small community compared with Muslim communities in other Western European nations.

Among those showing support for the asylum initiative was Romano Prodi, Berlusconi's center-left opponent in the country's April 9-10 parliamentary elections.

Rahman is "a political refugee," Prodi said at a news conference for foreign correspondents. "I fully approve of his being given political asylum because this is a serious matter, and I hope he can be adequately protected."

Helping Rahman appeared to be a rare instance of Italian opposition and government figures agreeing on the same issue, although center-left politicians have been using the case to complain that Italy should be more generous in granting political asylum.

Milan daily Corriere della Sera reported that Rahman was flown to Rome's Ciampino airport aboard a Falcon jet of the Italian military secret services SISMI, in the early hours of Wednesday, when the small airport is usually closed to the public.

Ciampino military airport authorities denied that Rahman had arrived at the military end of the airport, while the airport's civilian facility said it could not confirm news reports that the Afghan man had disembarked there.

Officials at SISMI declined to comment about how Rahman reached Italy.

Rome daily La Repubblica described Rahman as repeatedly expressing gratitude to Italian authorities, even placing a hand over his heart in a sign of thanks.

The Interior Ministry said that Rahman wasn't granting interviews.

Without citing sources, several Italian dailies said the man had described himself as feeling "happy" and "serene" about being sheltered in Rome.

Rahman was already in Italy when Afghan lawmakers on Wednesday demanded that he be barred from leaving the conservative Muslim country.

His plight in Kabul, where he had been jailed, had inspired an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI and calls by the U.S. and other governments that the Kabul government protect the convert.

The convert was let out of 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.