Apostasy in Islam

The case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Christian

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A conflict of values:

bullet "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Emphasis ours).
bullet "Whosoever turns back from his belief, openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard." Sura 4: 88-89

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As noted in our essays on apostasy in Islam, people who have left the religion of Islam have been rarely executed in the 21st century. However, most Muslims feel "a powerful sense of rage...when one of their number forsakes the community." 1 They consider it a profound insult to Allah and to all Muslims. Some predominately Muslim countries have laws which require the death penalty for any adult who abandons Islam. Afghanistan is one such country. Abdul Rahman (1965-), an Afghan Christian, was arrested in 2006-FEB, and was expected to be placed on trial for apostasy. There was worldwide concern that he might be executed.

If he had been raised a Christian and remained Christian all his life, he would have had no problem. There are a few dozen -- at most a few hundred -- Christians in Afghanistan out of a population of about 30 million. About 99% of the population are Muslim -- 80% Sunni and 19% Shi'a. 1% are Hindu. 2

Rahman's case was dismissed on 2006-MAR-26 because of lack of evidence and a suspicion that he was mentally ill.

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The case:

Abdul Rahman, 41, was born into a Muslim family in Afghanistan, and raised in that faith. While working for an Christian aid group in Peshawar some 16 years ago, he converted to Christianity. He left the country and worked in Germany for nine years. He recently returned to Afghanistan in 2002 where he attempted to gain custody of his daughters who had been living with their grandparents. His parents reported his religious conversion to the authorities. He was arrested during 2006-FEB. Rahman was found to be carrying a Bible when he was taken into custody.

He was placed on trial for an "attack on Islam" by his action of leaving Islam for another religion. Under the draft constitution of the country, the punishment is death by hanging.

Judge Alhaj Ansarullah Mawlawy Zada tried his case. He said:

"The Attorney General is emphasizing he should be hung. It is a crime to convert to Christianity from Islam. He is teasing and insulting his family by converting,....We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law. It is an attack on Islam."

On another occasion, he told The Times that Rahman:

"...was a Muslim for 25 years more than he has been a Christian. We will request him to become a Muslim again. In your country two women can marry I think that is very strange. In this country we have the perfect constitution, it is Islamic law and it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished."

The Associated Press quoted Zada on 2006-MAR-23 as saying:

"There is no direct pressure on our court so far, but if it happens we will consider it as an interference." He added that he expects to rule on the case in the next few days. 8

Prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, offered Rahman his freedom if he would only renounce Christianity and return to Islam, but he has refused. Wasi said:

"He would have been forgiven if he changed back. But he said he was a Christian and would always remain one. We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty."

The media has not been able to talk to Rahman. Prison officials said that they had been threatened with dismissal if they allowed an interview. However, Sayad Miakhel, 30, a cell mate of Rahman said:

"He is standing by his words he will not become a Muslim again, he has been a Christian for over 14 years. It is what he believes in. His father complained to authorities after he said he wanted to take his daughters abroad. He is an intelligent man and his faith belongs to him."

A medical team is examining Rahman; they suspect that his rejection of Islam may be a sign of insanity.

If found guilty, Rahman would have had the option of appealing his case to the Provincial Court, and finally to the Supreme Court. President Hamid Karzai would have had to ratify the execution before it is carried out. 3,4,5

Abdul Raoulf, who the Associated Press describes as a moderate Muslim cleric, said "Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die." 8

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Reaction to the case:

bullet 2006-MAR-20: U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"Our view … is that tolerance, freedom of worship is an important element of any democracy. And these are issues as Afghan democracy matures that they are going to have to deal with increasingly." 6

He appears to be missing the point. Minority religions are tolerated in Afghanistan. People are free to worship as they wish. People are able to convert from another religion to Islam. However, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion risk a judicial trial and execution. 6

bullet Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid, a non-profit working in Afghanistan, believes that the case is a step backwards for the country. He said: "few practitioners are used to the concept of democracy and toleration … [many] are educated only in Islamic law." 6
bullet B. Preston posting to Junk Yard Blog states:

"Mr. Rahman’s plight deserves attention. He deserves religious freedom. Afghans deserve freedom to worship as they please and should not be subject to the laws of a religion they don’t serve. Writing Islam into Afghanistan’s constitution — and Iraq’s — may yet undo all the good work our troops have done in both." 7

bullet 2006-MAR-22: President Bush said:

"I'm troubled when I hear, deeply troubled when I hear, the fact that a person who converted away from Islam may be held to account. That's not the universal application of the values that I talked about. I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship." 10

bullet The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) consulted with members of the Fiqh Council of North America, an association of Islamic legal scholars who interpret Muslim religious law. CAIR then issued a statement calling on the government of Afghanistan to release Rahman. They wrote:

"Islamic scholars say the original rulings on apostasy were similar to those for treasonous acts in legal systems worldwide and do not apply to an individual's choice of religion. Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, a position supported by verses in the Qur'an, Islam's revealed text....Religious decisions should be matters of personal choice, not a cause for state intervention. Faith imposed by force is not true belief, but coercion. Islam has no need to compel belief in its divine truth." 12

bullet 2006-MAR-23: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Afghan President Hamid Karazai on MAR-23. She later said during a press conference:

"We look forward, hopefully, to a resolution to this in the very near future.....We have raised it in the strongest possible terms to make clear that it is our great hope and desire that Afghanistan will reaffirm what is already in its constitution, that the universal declaration on human rights will be respected, and that this will be resolved in a way that is consistent with those principles." 10

bullet Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman said that Rice emphasized to Karzai the:

"fact that the United States stands forthrightly for principles of freedom of worship, freedom of expression, and that these are bedrock principles of democracy around the world, these are principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution and they're principles that are enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We're looking for a favorable resolution at the earliest possible time" 10

bullet William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International stated:

"No individual should ever be persecuted — let alone executed — for his or her religious beliefs. The freedom to practice one's own faith without fear of retribution is one of humanity's most sacred rights. If Rahman has been imprisoned solely because he converted to Christianity, he must be immediately and unconditionally released." 10

bullet Bill Frist (R) Senate Majority Leader said:

"I am greatly concerned by Mr. Rahman's prosecution and the challenge his case presents to the future of Afghanistan. It is fair to say that the United States has not spent the last four plus years liberating, defending, rebuilding and assisting Afghanistan's democratic development only to see the Afghani people remain subject to laws reminiscent of the Taliban's reign." 10

bullet The Associated Press interviewed four clerics in Kabul:

bullet Hamidullah, chief cleric at Haji Yacob Mosque, said:

"The government is scared of the international community. But the people will kill him if he is freed....[If Rahman is freed] "There will be an uprising. The government will lose the support of the people. What sort of democracy would it be if the government ignored the will of all the people."

bullet Raoulf, member of the Afghan Ulama Council said:

"The government are playing games. The people will not be fooled. Cut off his head! We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there's nothing left."

bullet Mirhossain Nasri of the Hossainia Mosque said:
"If he is allowed to live in the West then others will claim to be Christian so they can too. We must set an example....He must be hanged....We are a small country and we welcome the help the outside world is giving us, but please don't interfere in this issue. We are Muslims and these are our beliefs. This is much more important to us than all the aid the world has given us." 11

bullet 2006-MAR-24: The Fundamentalist Baptist Information Service commented:

"What more evidence do we need to overthrow George W. Bush's philosophy that Islam is basically a tolerant religion and that only the 'extremists' are the problem. After spending billions of dollars getting rid of the 'extremists' in Afghanistan we are left with a 'tolerant' regime that threatens Christians with death." 9

bullet 2006-MAR-25: The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) called for Rahman's release. They noted that:

"International scrutiny on this issue has cast sharia as clear-cut on the issue of apostasy -- a person who turns his/her back on Islam is an apostate and must be punished by death. In reality, the 'rules of Islam' are not codified, and the Qur'an mandates that religious freedom be respected. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad himself never sentenced an apostate to death. ... We strongly oppose the state's use of coercion in regulating Islamic belief in such a manner, since faith is a matter of individual choice on which only God can adjudicate." 13

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Political aspects of the case:

Rahman is clearly admitting that he converted from Islam to Christianity. So his guilt is well established. If he is executed, the country may well lose a great deal of support from the international community. If his life is spared, then the Taliban will be granted a great propaganda victory; they will be able to claim that the government of Afghanistan has abandoned centuries old Sharia law in favor of secularism and human rights. It is a no-win situation for the government.

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Resolution of the case:

The case against Abdul Rahman was dismissed on 2006-MAR-26. An anonymous official said:

"The court dismissed today the case against Abdul Rahman for a lack of information and a lot of legal gaps in the case. The decision about his release will be taken possibly tomorrow."

CNN reported just before midnight on MAR-27 that Abdul Rahman had been released. Because so many Muslim clergy have called for him to be murdered, steps were taken to find a country that will accept him as a refugee. Usually reliable news sources reported on MAR-28 that he was outside of the country.

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Other cases:

Compass Direct is an agency that tracks cases worldwide where Christians are persecuted for their beliefs. They stated on 2006-MAR-22:

"An avalanche of media coverage of an Afghan man facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity has apparently sparked the arrest and deepening harassment of other Afghan Christians in the ultra-conservative Muslim country."

"During the past few days, Compass has confirmed the arrest of two other Afghan Christians elsewhere in the country. Because of the sensitive situation, local sources requested that the location of the jailed converts be withheld."

"This past weekend, (MAR-18 & 19) one young Afghan convert to Christianity was beaten severely outside his home by a group of six men, who finally knocked him unconscious with a hard blow to his temple. He woke up in the hospital two hours later but was discharged before morning."

" 'Our brother remains steadfast, despite the ostracism and beatings,' one of his friends said. "

"Several other Afghan Christians have been subjected to police raids on their homes and places of work in the past month, as well as to telephone threats." 15

The Family Research Council commented on the Compass Direct statement about the beatings and arrests saying:

"This is the daily reality inside the Muslim world. Americans have a special reason to decry such outrages in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our soldiers have fought and died to bring freedom to these peoples. While we celebrate Abdul's release there remains much work for this Administration to do. Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq must mean religious freedom, too. Otherwise, our efforts there will ultimately be futile." 16

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, "Apostacy (Irtidad) in Islam," at: http://www.al-islam.org/
  2. "Afghanistan," The World Fact Book, at: http://www.cia.gov/
  3. "Afghan Christian Could Get Death Sentence," Examiner, 2006-MAR-19, at: http://www.examiner.com/
  4. "Christian convert could be executed," Toronto Star, 2006-MAR-20.
  5. Tiom Albone, "Afghan faces death penalty for Christian faith," The Times, 2006-MAR-20, at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/
  6. Michelle Malkin, "Save Abdul Rahman," 2006-MAR-20, at: http://michellemalkin.com/
  7. B. Preston "On trial for his faith," Junk Yard Blog, 2006-MAR-20, at: http://junkyardblog.net/
  8. "Clerics demand death for Christian convert," Associated Press, 2006-MAR-23.
  9. "Christian faces death penalty in Afghanistan," FBIS Mailing List, 2006-MAR-24
  10. "Rice Calls Karzai on Christian Convert's Fate," Fox News, 2006-MAR-23, at: http://www.foxnews.com/
  11. "Clerics Call for Christian Convert's Death Despite Western Outrage," Associated Press, 2006-MAR-23, at: http://www.foxnews.com/
  12. "CAIR calls for release of Afghan Christian," Islam-Infonet, 2006-MAR-24.
  13. "MPAC joins calls for release of Afghan Christian," MPAC, 2006-MAR-25, at: http://app.e2ma.net/
  14. Daniel Cooney, "Afghan court drops case against Christian," Associated Press, 2006-MAR-26.
  15. "Afghanistan: More Christian arrested in wake of 'apostasy:' Two other converts from Islam in custody; another hospitalized after beating," Compass Direct, 2006-MAR-22, at: http://www.compassdirect.org/ This is expected to be a temporary listing that will later be transferred to their news archive.
  16. Tony Perkins, "Safe! - For Now," Family Research Council, Washington Update, 2006-MAR-28.

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Copyright © 2006 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-MAR-20
Latest update: 2011-FEB-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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