(CNSNews.com) - An Afghan Christian threatened with execution for leaving Islam has arrived safely in the West, but religious freedom campaigners remain concerned about the broader and enduring problem of the shari'a-mandated death penalty in parts of the Islamic world.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that Abdul Rahman had arrived in Rome, where the Italian cabinet unanimously agreed on Wednesday to approve a request for asylum.
Berlusconi said "all necessary precautions" were in place to ensure the safety of the Afghan, whose whereabouts were being kept secret.
Rahman was freed from custody in Kabul earlier this week after his plight drew international concern.
Heavy pressure was applied by Western countries, led by those that took part in the U.S.-led campaign to topple the Taliban in 2001 or sent troops later, and which shore up the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Pope Benedict XVI also sent a letter to Karzai on the matter. At the weekend, he expressed concern for communities in countries where religious freedom is lacking, "or where despite claims on paper they in truth are subjected to many restrictions."
The pope's reference may have been to Afghanistan's new constitution, whose religious freedom provision appears to be contradicted by a clause stating that "no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam."
Afghan officials said the case against Rahman, who reportedly became a Christian while working with an aid group outside his homeland, was dropped for lack of evidence and because of suspicions he may be mentally unwell.
On the day he flew to Italy, the Afghan parliament debated the case, protesting the convert's release and demanding that he not be allowed to leave the country. During the debate, lawmakers declared that not punishing Rahman violated shari'a, or Islamic law.
According to a fatwa, or religious ruling, posted on the Islam Online website, "leaving Islam is the ugliest and the worst form of disbelief in Almighty Allah"
How Muslims should treat an apostate (or "murtadd" in Arabic) is the subject of much debate. Some Islamic scholars focus on the words and actions of Mohammed, who was reported in the Hadith, or traditions of the prophet, to have said that anyone who abandons Islam should be killed.
Others emphasize the Koran's injunction that there should be "no compulsion in religion," and argue that Mohammed's words on the subject were only applicable in specific contexts and applied in cases where people left Islam and also betrayed the Islamic state.
The Barnabas Fund, which campaigns for Christian minorities in Islamic societies, says although a minority of liberal Muslims had long promoted the latter argument, it had yet to make any impact on the official teaching of shari'a, as formulated in the Middle Ages.
The religious freedom group International Christian Concern welcomed the news about Rahman, but said it was "merely a short-term solution to the fundamental problem with Afghanistan's interpretation of Islamic law."
"While we can celebrate the rescue of a courageous Christian, Afghanistan remains unchanged in its lack of respect for human rights."
Arie de Pater, advocacy spokesman for Open Doors, said the release of Rahman "leaves the [Afghan] constitution and the law unchanged, so that apostates remain under threat of being hanged."
Campaigners say the problem is not restricted to Afghanistan.
"Minority Christians face severe and growing persecution in many Islamic nations including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere," Jim Jacobson of Christian Freedom International said earlier.
"This must be condemned at the highest levels wherever and whenever it occurs."
"There are former Muslims who now follow Jesus Christ in every country of the world, including others in Afghanistan," said the Barnabas Fund.
"For all of them Islam's apostasy law has implications. Though only a handful of countries have the death sentence for apostasy in their law, in every Muslim society there is a widespread knowledge of what shari'a says on this subject."
As a result, it said, converts face difficulties including harassment, rejection by their families and communities, official discrimination on a variety of pretexts, violence, and sometimes murder.
In a recent letter to President Bush, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted its previously-expressed concerns that failings in the Afghan constitution could lead to unjust criminal accusations of apostasy and blasphemy.
USCIRF chairman Michael Cromartie said Washington should press Karzai to "allow for free manifestation of religious belief and debate on critical human rights issues."
He said the case also provided a critical opportunity to encourage Karzai to reform the judiciary and appoint well-trained judges.
The USCIRF was established under 1998 legislation to provide recommendations to Congress and the executive branch on religious freedom issues.
See earlier stories:
Trial of Afghan Convert Emphasizes Need for Judicial Reform (Mar. 22, 2006)
Apostasy Case Raises Questions About Islamic Constitutions (Mar. 21, 2006)
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