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Christian's trial reveals gulf within Islam

Experts say nothing in the Koran forbids conversion, but some Muslims believe it demands a death penalty.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published March 28, 2006


An Afghan Muslim appears to have escaped execution for converting to Christianity. But his case will long be a reminder of the gulf between Islam as it originated and Islam as interpreted by its extremist followers.

Experts on the faith say there is nothing in the Koran, the Muslim holy book, nor the teachings of the prophet Mohammed that bans conversion, let alone that requires a convert to be executed. Only after Mohammed's death did the idea of punishment emerge, and then as much for political reasons as for religious ones.

During the early years of the Islamic empire, when the state's authority was threatened by hostile tribes, renouncing Islam was considered treason. Even then, however, it "did not always merit capital punishment - it was at the discretion of the judge," says Asma Afsaruddin, an expert on Islamic civilization at the University of Notre Dame.

Judges "didn't have this simplistic black and white view. A number of Muslims (today) do adhere to this simplistic view and will assert this kind of punishment, but they have lost touch with their own diverse legal and ethical traditions."

According to Afghanistan Deputy Attorney General Mohammed Eshak Aloko, the Christian convert was released from prison in Kabul on Monday. Abdul Rahman, 41, whom prosecutors previously said was mentally unfit to stand trial, faced the death penalty for renouncing Islam 16 years ago when he worked for a Christian missionary group helping Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan.

Rahman has appealed for asylum in another country out of fear Islamic extremists will kill him once he goes free. Hundreds of Afghans, including Muslim clerics, demanded Monday that he be put to death.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide. It has also dramatized how far Afghanistan remains from the tolerant, democratic nation President Bush envisioned when he committed thousands of troops and billions of dollars to ousting the extremist Taliban in 2001.

Afghanistan's new Constitution proclaims Islam as the official state religion but says, somewhat ambiguously, that non-Muslims are free to worship "within limits of the provisions of law." The nation's legal system remains based on a strict interpretation of sharia law that permits the death penalty for "apostasy" or converting to another faith.

Before Rahman's arrest last month, the U.S. State Department said reported violations of religious freedom in Afghanistan were on the decline. It noted, however, that there were unconfirmed media accounts of five male converts to Christianity being killed between June and August 2004.

The Taliban and many other Afghans have been influenced by a highly conservative strain of Islam known as Wahhabism, founded three centuries ago in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi doctrine still governs everyday life in the kingdom, a close U.S. ally that is considered one of the world's most repressive countries.

In 2004, a Christian from India who was working in Saudi Arabia was jailed for more than seven months for allegedly "spreading Christianity." Brian O'Connor, an Anglo-Indian, said he was strung upside down by his feet, then kicked, whipped and beaten.

"In between torture sessions, (a guard) forced me to sign statements confessing that I had in my possession biblical DVDs and CDs," he later said. O'Connor was released only after an international campaign to free him.

In another incident in 2004, a Saudi newspaper reported that a Muslim teacher had been sentenced to 40 months in jail and 750 lashes for "mocking religion" after he discussed faiths other than Wahhabi Islam in his classroom.

"There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia," the State Department said last year.

Islam is like Christianity and most other faiths in that it considers itself the right religion and strongly disapproves of those who convert, says Radwan Masmoudi, founder of the the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, in Washington. He stresses, however, that not all Muslims agree with Wahhabis that conversion should be punished by imprisonment or even death.

Growing up in the predominantly Muslim nation of Tunisia, Masmoudi read the Bible as well as the Koran "because I was interested to learn what's out there" before settling on a faith he could follow. He was struck by the many similarities between Islam and Christianity, including stories about Adam, Moses, Noah, the Virgin Mary and the miracles of Jesus.

"The only thing that made a difference for me is the issue of the Trinity - I was not comfortable with the idea that God has a son," Masmoudi said.

Just as Muslims try to convert others to their religion, he said Christians should be allowed to proselytize in Muslim countries so long as they don't try to woo converts with food or cash, as reportedly occurs in parts of Africa.

"Where people are dying from hunger, they'll convert to anything if you give them food. People should feel free to decide - if somebody is convinced Christianity is the way to go and wants to become a Christian, I have no problems with that," Masmoudi said.

Afsaruddin of Notre Dame agrees that Muslims should be receptive to letting those of other faiths talk about their religions. However, she said, Christian proselytizing is often seen as attempt to impose Western values and culture when many in the Muslim world feel especially defenseless and vulnerable.

The experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suggests that Muslim governments do not want citizens converting to Christianity even if it is not expressly forbidden.

The church has one of the world's largest missionary programs, but "wherever we go, we go in the front door, with permission," church president Gordon B. Hinckley said in 2000.

As a result, the church does not proselytize to Muslims anywhere in the world.