KABUL, Afghanistan, March 22, 2006 -- Despite the overthrow of the fundamentalist Taliban government and the presence of 22,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a man who converted to Christianity is being prosecuted in Kabul, and a judge said Sunday that if convicted, he faces the death penalty.
Abdul Rahman, who is in his 40s, says he converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working as an aid worker helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Relatives denounced him as a convert during a custody battle over his children, and he was arrested last month. The prosecutor says Rahman was found with a Bible.
Human rights workers have described the case as an unsettling reminder that the country's post-Taliban judiciary remains deeply conservative, and they have called on President Hamid Karzai to intervene. During Taliban times, men were forced to kneel in prayer five times a day, and couples faced the death penalty for sex outside marriage, for example. Reform efforts have been slow, say experts, since there are so few judges and lawyers with experience.
Earlier today, President Bush said he was upset Rahman is being tried for his conversion to Christianity. The U.S. State Department also said it is watching the case closely and considers it a barometer of how well democracy is developing in Afghanistan.
"We expect them to honor the universal principle of freedom," Bush said at a speech in Wheeling, W.Va. "I'm ... deeply troubled when I hear the fact that a person who converted away from Islam may be held to account.
"I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship," he said.
The United States will the Afghan government that it is making a mistake by prosecuting the case, the president said.
"We have got influence in Afghanistan and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values," Bush said. "We will deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religions."
A number of Christian nonprofit groups do humanitarian work in Afghanistan. Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid calls the Rahman case a step backward for the country, especially if Rahman is executed.
Nutt, who has spent time in Afghanistan, tells ABC News "few practitioners are used to the concept of democracy and toleration ... [many] are educated only in Islamic law."
Presiding judge Ansarullah Mawlazezadah tells ABC News a medical team was checking the defendant, since the team suspects insanity caused Rahman to reject Islam.
"We want to know that the doctors have given him a green light on his mental state, because he is not normal when he talks," says the judge.
The post-Taliban constitution recognizes Islam as Afghanistan's religion, and decrees that Islam's Sharia law applies when a case is not covered by specific legislation. The prosecutor says under Sharia law, Abdul Rahman must die.
The judge, however, holds hopes for a solution.
"We will ask him if he has changed his mind about being a Christian," Mawlazezadah says. "If he has, we will forgive him, because Islam is a religion of tolerance."
The case has caused outcry among Afghan human rights groups, and reformists like Karzai have sought a more liberal, secular legal system.
"Afghan law protects freedom of religion," says Naader Naderey of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "We want to see the reform of the judiciary. We want to see judges with wider legal experience."
Rahman's case contradicts Article 7 of Afghanistan's constitution, which assures that "the state shall abide by ... the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." That declaration states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought ... to change his religion or belief."
However, the constitution also states that Islamic law takes precedence over secular law and international treaties. Furthermore, the supreme court of that country has the right to veto certain provisions and interpret compliance with such treaties.
"I think that right now there's in Afghanistan some differing interpretations of the Afghan constitution," McCormack said. "These issues rightfully should get resolved through the court system. But they need to be resolved in a transparent way and according to the rule of law. It is a case that we are going to be following quite closely, though."
One expert in Islamic law explains that Afghanistan's penal code divides into two parts: the religious "huduud" dictated by the Koran and secular "ta'zir," which is regulated by the state. Conversion to another religion is a crime under religious law, which takes precedence over the secular and more tolerant policy.
Muslim converts to Christianity have been prosecuted in other countries ruled by Islamic law. Since 1996, high-profile apostasy cases have put Christian converts on the stand in countries that include Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan.
The legal scholar, who asks to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the topic, says, "It's a fundamental tenet under Islam that conversion to another religion is a heinous act. It has a touch of treason ... there's an aspect to it of betrayal against the communal identity."