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Protests said to have triggered freeing of Afghan Christian convert

An Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam has been freed after a court in Kabul dismissed the case against Abdul Rahman following worldwide appeals on his behalf.

Earlier 41-year old Rahman had declared he was ready to die for his faith. He had faced possible execution under Sharia, strict Islamic law, for converting from Islam and not renouncing Christianity.

"I respect Afghan law as I respect Islam, but I chose to become a Christian for myself, for my soul. It is not an offence." Rahman told Italy’s La Repubblica daily newspaper.

Since his release Rahman is reported to have disappeared apparently fearing for his life and to be seeking asylum in another country.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, who heads the Evangelical Church in Germany, hailed Rahman’s release as an initial success for the worldwide protests. But, he said, if it was true that the Afghan was now seeking asylum in a Western country, this demonstrated he no longer felt safe in Afghanistan.

"The fact that he cannot remain in Afghanistan is an expression of the deplorable situation that the application of Sharia in cases of a change of religion contravenes universal human rights," said Huber.

Rahman reportedly converted to Christianity more than 15 years ago while working for a Christian relief group. He lived overseas before returning to Afghanistan in 2003.

His arrest about a month ago was reported to have followed a family dispute over the fate of his two daughters. It sparked condemnation and expressions of concern including from US President George W. Bush and Christian leaders such as Pope Benedict XVI.

In Britain, which has troops serving in Afghanistan, the moderator of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, the Rev. David Lacy, said he was distressed about the reports that Rahman had faced execution.

"Members of our armed forces are in Afghanistan having assisted the Afghan people there to free themselves from a barbaric, repressive regime," Lacy wrote to the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw. "Are they now to defend, at risk of their lives, a system which may execute people for becoming Christians?"

Hundreds of clerics, students and others chanting "Death to Christians!" were reported to have marched through the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on 27 March in a protest against the court decision the previous day to dismiss the case.

A foreign church worker based in India who travels frequently to Afghanistan but requested anonymity, told Ecumenical News International, "This story seems to be amazing."

The aid official said that even church workers based in Afghanistan were afraid for their lives, noting, "The situation in Afghanistan is very dangerous."

(c) Ecumenical News International