NATO Allies Urge Afghanistan to Respect Religious Freedom

Four NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan have urged the Kabul government to respect religious freedom. Their call came after an Afghan judge said that a man who had converted from Islam to Christianity could face the death penalty for his choice.

The U.S. administration and three other NATO allies - Germany, Italy and Canada - have urged Afghanistan to allow a man who left Islam to become a Christian practice his faith in safety. Raising the case with visiting Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the United States called on Kabul to uphold the constitutional right of Afghan citizens to choose their faith.

Abdur Rahman, 41, was jailed for converting to Christianity and faces the death penalty. He was arrested last month, after his family denounced him for becoming a Christian.

While declaring that the United States did not want to interfere in Afghanistan's sovereignty, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns urged Afghanistan to conduct the trial against Rahman in a transparent way.

Italy called in the Afghan ambassador in Rome for an explanation on the matter. After meeting with the ambassador, Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said he had been told Rahman probably not be executed.

"We know that the Afghan constitution is based on Sharia law, but we also know that the death penalty for apostasy would damage a fundamental principle, which is religious freedom," he explained.

Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga wrote an open letter to the prime minister, urging him to withdraw Italian troops from Afghanistan unless he received assurances over Rahman's safety. He wrote that is not acceptable for Italian soldiers to put themselves at risk or even sacrifice their lives for a fundamentalist, conservative regime.

In Germany, two Berlin cabinet ministers also spoke out. The country's top Catholic cardinal, Karl Lehmann, called it an alarming signal and demanded Rahman's freedom. Canada also said it was concerned and urged the Afghan government to meet its human rights obligations.

The calls present a problem for Afhan President Hamid Karzai, who needs foreign troops in his country. Some 23,000 American troops are in Afghanistan, targeting Taleban and al Qaeda forces. Germany has 2,700 soldiers in Afghanistan, Canada has 2,300 and Italy has close to 1,800.