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For Afghans, Allies, A Clash of Values

The country's 2004 constitution, which was heavily debated and rewritten by Afghan officials after it was crafted with help from U.N. advisers, is an ambiguous document that endorses international human rights conventions but also says that no law shall contravene the principles of Islam.

"This case goes right to the heart of the contradictions in the constitution. Is Afghanistan a democracy that respects human rights and international norms, or is it an Islamic country with an extremely conservative judiciary?" said Alex Their, a senior rule of law adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The issues being raised will have an important impact on Afghanistan's ability to become a stable democracy."

Although Rahman is the first Afghan charged with converting since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan courts have recently prosecuted or harshly criticized individuals for other alleged anti-Islamic acts, including a presidential candidate in 2004 who questioned the right of Muslim men to have multiple wives and a magazine editor last year who challenged the doctrine that conversion from Islam is a capital offense.

The Supreme Court's chief justice, an elderly cleric named Fazl Hadi Shinwari, has issued religious decrees against such individuals. Karzai, a moderate who in Afghanistan is widely viewed as having ceded the judiciary to Islamic conservatives, renominated Shinwari this week. Abdullah, who was not renamed to his post in a cabinet shuffle this week, said the Afghan judiciary was in serious need of reform.

So far, the government has not invoked the extreme punishments ordained by Islamic law, or sharia , such as cutting off thieves' hands and stoning adulterers, which were frequently carried out by the Taliban and drew international condemnation. But most Afghans view Islamic law as absolute once it is invoked. And despite their gratitude for U.S. military and economic support, many remain leery of Western values and associate Christianity with fornication and drunkenness.

Under sharia, a convert to Christianity "should be given time to think," said Abdul Aziz, a professor of Islamic law who spoke by telephone from Kabul. "What he has done may damage Islamic society, so he should change his mind." If he does not, sharia prescribes the punishment of death. "Then, even a judge cannot change it. It is like doing a coup against the government," Aziz said. Rahman's case was brought by a public security court, not a regular criminal one.

The case against Rahman is complicated by personal aspects. His conversion was denounced by his family in Kabul after he was involved in a lawsuit and child custody fight with his former wife, and he has been described as perennially jobless and mentally unbalanced. He converted in 1990 while working with a Christian aid group in Pakistan and then moved to Germany, returning only recently.

Comments made this week in Kabul by judges, prosecutors, neighbors and Rahman's relatives illustrated the strong emotional and religious feelings such a case can evoke. His father expressed shame and bewilderment at his conversion. Guards refused to let journalists visit him in a Kabul prison, and one said, "We will cut him into little pieces."

But yesterday, Rahman was briefly brought before the news media. According to a report by the BBC, he said: "I am not an infidel or a fugitive. I am a Christian. If they want to sentence me to death, I accept that."

Staff writer Jim VandeHei in Wheeling, W.Va., contributed to this report.

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