WASHINGTON — The Bush administration stepped up pressure Thursday on Afghanistan's government to free a man who could be sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity, a case that is further heightening tensions between the West and the Islamic world.
A day after President Bush expressed his concern, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Afghan President Hamid Karzai and urged him "in the strongest terms" not to punish Abdur Rahman, a 41-year-old medical aid worker. Rahman faces trial in an Islamic court after it was disclosed in a civil child custody case with his wife that he had converted to Christianity 16 years ago.
Sharia, or Islamic law, considers converts to be apostates, and calls for the death penalty unless they convert back to Islam.
The case, disclosed Sunday by an Afghan judge, has unleashed an international furor with strong religious overtones and caused turmoil across the political spectrum in the United States, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The controversy puts enormous pressure on Karzai, whose weak government is heavily dependent on the U.S. and Europe for financial aid and military protection from Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. But he also must contend with conservative clerics at home who frown on too much government cooperation with the West.
Bush, meanwhile, must deal with outrage even among one of the foundations of his political base -- conservative Christians -- while continuing to nurture the Karzai government, created as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
These conservatives have questioned the administration's support for democratic governments in Islamic countries and deluged the White House with e-mails.
"How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by radical Islamists who kill Christians?" wrote Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a lobbying group, in a letter this week to Bush and congressional leaders.
Leaders of European and other nations, Christian churches and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose forces are protecting Afghanistan, have all been in touch with the Afghans to urge that the principle of religious tolerance be observed. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at a news conference that Karzai had assured him in a telephone conversation that "we don't have to worry" about Rahman's fate.
"President Karzai has assured me that what's alarmed most of us will be worked out quickly," he said.
However, Rice did not report receiving such assurances. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that in her call to Karzai, Rice sought a "favorable resolution to this case at the earliest possible moment."
Afghanistan's new constitution calls for religious freedom of expression, but the document has an unresolved conflict with Sharia, which does not permit conversions out of Islam.
Karzai has promised foreign leaders that his government will respect freedom of religion. But Ansarullah Mawlavizada, an Afghan Supreme Court judge, told the Reuters news service: "Afghanistan is an Islamic country and its judiciary will act independently and neutrally.... No other policy will be accepted apart from Islamic orders and what our constitution says."
Some Afghan officials have predicted that Rahman will be released, but others have said that courts will follow their own rules, independent of pressure from Karzai or foreign governments.
On Wednesday, an Afghan prosecutor said that Rahman might be "mad" and that he could be released on grounds of mental incompetence. But on Thursday, some top Muslim clerics in Kabul, the capital, insisted that he could not avoid trial on such grounds.
Mawlawi Ghulam Haider, 75, a mullah in a Kabul mosque, said: "If somebody becomes a Christian or converts to any other religion than Islam, he must be given a chance over three days to think and return to Islam. If he returns to Islam, he can live happily ever after. But if he doesn't turn back ... he will be punished by death."
The clerics' views contrast strongly with the view of Western governments and organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Concerned Women for America.
"We support the God-given rights of individuals to pray, to worship and to evangelize their neighbors without fear of discrimination or persecution," Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, wrote in a letter to Bush. "Thus, we strongly stand behind all efforts to support Mr. Rahman in his simple quest to be free to live a Christian life and to resolve without prejudice the turmoil in his family."