U.S. Backs Afghan Man Who Converted to Christianity

The Bush administration issued a subdued appeal Tuesday to Afghanistan to permit a Christian convert on trial for his life to practice his faith in the predominantly Muslim country.

The State Department, however, did not urge the U.S. ally in the war against terrorism to terminate the trial. Officials said the Bush administration did not want to interfere with Afghanistan's sovereignty.

The case involves an Afghan man who converted from Islam and was arrested last month after his family accused him of becoming a Christian. The conversion is a crime under Afghanistan's Islamic laws.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and department spokesman Sean McCormack asked Afghanistan to conduct the trial "in a transparent way." Burns said he told Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, with whom he held talks at the department, that "we would follow the case closely."

At a joint news conference, pressed by reporters, Abdullah said he hoped "through our constitutional process there will be a satisfactory result." He did not say whether the defendant, Abdul Rahman, 41, would be found innocent.

Abdullah said officials of his government "know that it is a very sensitive issue and we know the concerns of the American people." He said the Afghan Embassy in Washington had received hundreds of messages of concern.

The Bush administration went to war four years ago, ousting the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, and then joined with other countries to help steer the nation to constitutional rule. About 18,000 U.S. troops are on duty there, and more than 200 have died.

"Our government is a great supporter of freedom of religion," Burns said. "As the Afghan constitution affords freedom of religion to all Afghan citizens, we hope very much that those rights, the right of freedom of religion, will be upheld in an Afghan court."

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., released a letter he said he had sent to Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressing dismay over the case.

"In a country where soldiers from all faiths, including Christianity, are dying in defense of your government, I find it outrageous that Mr. Rahman is being prosecuted and facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity, which he did 16 years ago before your government even existed," Lantos wrote.

German and Italian officials have voiced concern, too.

State Department spokesman McCormack contrasted the government in Kabul with its fundamentalist predecessor.

"Under the Taliban, anybody considered an apostate was subject to torture and death," he said. "Right now, you have a legal proceeding that is under way in Afghanistan."

McCormack said the administration underscored to Abdullah "that we believe tolerance and freedom of worship are important elements of any democracy.