Afghan Christian convert arrives in Italy as refugee

An Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity flew to Italy after his release from prison.

Abdul Rahman, 41, arrived in strict secrecy and was being cared for by the Italian government, Catholic News Service reports. The day after Rahman's arrival, Italian officials granted his refugee status on grounds of religious persecution.

Afghan prosecutors this week dropped charges against Mr Rahman. He disappeared after his release, apparently out of fear for his life.

Pope Benedict XVI and others had appealed for Mr Rahman's release, urging Afghan authorities to show respect for freedom of religion. The authorities complied, despite demands from Muslim leaders that Rahman be barred from leaving the country.

The Vatican said the pope's appeal was inspired by "profound human compassion" and by "the firm belief in the dignity of human life and respect for every person's freedom of conscience and religion."

"I am certain, Mr President, that dropping the case against Mr Rahman would bestow great honour upon the Afghan people and would raise a chorus of admiration in the international community," said a telegram sent on behalf of the pope by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

"It would then contribute in a most significant way to our common mission to foster mutual understanding and respect among the world's different religions and cultures," the telegram said.

Rahman was jailed after declaring his conversion to police officers, and the Afghan Supreme Court had said he could face the death penalty unless he reverted to Islam. He reportedly became a Christian several years ago, after working for a Christian aid agency in Pakistan.

The case has generated discussion about the extent of religious freedom in Afghanistan, whose government is supported by a strong US military presence. Despite the defeat of the fundamentalist Taliban regime in 2001, strict Islamic law remains in force.

Christians are a tiny minority in Afghanistan, numbering only a few thousand. An estimated 99 percent of the population is Muslim.

The pope spoke about religious freedom at his weekly blessing at the Vatican 26 March. He did not name specific countries, but said some governments, while adhering to human rights on paper, in practice impose many restrictions on religious liberty.

He encouraged minority Christian communities in such situations to "persevere in the patience and charity of Christ."

"To all those working in the service of the Gospel in such difficult situations, I want to express my heartfelt solidarity in the name of the entire church and assure you of my daily remembrance in prayer," he said.

Afghan Christian convert arrives in Italy, gets refugee status (Catholic News Service 30/3/06)

Afghan Christian convert flees to Italy (Catholic News Agency 30/3/06)
'I want to read Bible in peace': Afghan convert (Sydney Morning Herald 30/3/06)
Afghan convert granted asylum in Italy (Catholic World News 29/3/06)
Case dismissed, but Afghan Christian convert still faces danger, seeks foreign asylum (Catholic News Agency 22/3/06)
Afghan convert released, seeks asylum (Catholic World News 22/3/06)
Letter to Afghan President on the case of Abdul Rahman (Vatican Information Service 25/3/06 - temporary url)
Afghan court to release Christian convert, but national tension remains high (Catholic News Agency 27/3/06)
Pope appeals for Afghan convert's life (Catholic World News 27/3/06)
Afghan Catholic says he is ready to die for his faith (Indian Catholic 27/3/06)
Afghan Convert Spared; Pope Made Plea (Zenit 26/3/06)
Pope makes Afghan convert appeal (BBC 25/3/06)

31 Mar 2006