New York Times: Afghan Rights Fall Short for Christian Converts

February 7, 2011
In The News

By Ray Rivera

KABUL, Afghanistan - The jail commander had remained silent as the prisoner, Sayed Mussa, told a reporter about his journey from Islam to Christianity: his secret baptism nine years earlier, his faith in Jesus Christ and the promise of heaven.

But when Mr. Mussa said he believed in the Bible but also loved the Koran’s teachings, it was too much. "So you love the Koran and the Bible?" the commander broke in incredulously. "What kind of love is this?"

A guard thumbing Muslim prayer beads squared his shoulders and started to rise. "You want me to beat him?" he asked.

"No, no," the commander said, calming himself and waving off the guard. "Everyone has the right to express themselves."

Such has been Mr. Mussa’s life since his arrest for converting to Christianity nine months ago in a case that illustrates the contradictions - and limits - of religious freedom in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s Constitution, established in 2004, guarantees that people are "free to exercise their faith." But it also leaves it open for the courts to rely on Shariah, or Islamic law, on issues like conversion. Under some interpretations of Shariah, leaving Islam is considered apostasy, an offense punishable by hanging.

Mr. Mussa, 46, is staring at the prospect of a death sentence.

Mr. Mussa was arrested after a television station in Kabul broadcast images that it claimed showed Westerners baptizing Afghans and other Afghans praying at private Christian meetings. The broadcast stoked fears of proselytizing brought on by the influx of foreigners since the American-led invasion in 2001. Some lawmakers publicly declared that converts should die.

Since his arrest, Mr. Mussa said, guards at one jail slapped him and beat him with sticks. At another, two prisoners who learned of the charges against him assaulted and raped him, urged on by Taliban inmates.

"The Taliban were saying, ‘He is an infidel, he is filthy and he needs to be killed,’ " he recalled.

Mr. Mussa has not seen his wife and six children in months, since they fled to Pakistan for their safety. He is not even sure if he has a lawyer; he signed agreements with two, then never saw them again.

His treatment has been better, he said, since the American Embassy intervened on his behalf about two months ago to have him transferred here to the Kabul Detention Center.

Diplomats and Afghan officials, meanwhile, have tried to keep it out of the spotlight, fearing that publicity, particularly from the local news media, could set off an outcry from hard-line conservatives, endangering him and other Afghan Christians.

Embassy officials have been quietly trying to find a political solution that could allow Mr. Mussa asylum in another country. But after months of intermittent measures by diplomats to free him, Christian advocates and members of Congress are growing frustrated, not least with the larger issue of underwriting an Afghan government that has not ensured religious freedom.

"We cannot justify taxpayer dollars going to a government that allows the same restrictions on basic human rights that existed under the Taliban," two Republican members of Congress, Representatives Trent Franks of Arizona, co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, and Doug Lamborn of Colorado, wrote in a letter last fall to Ambassador Kar W. Eikenberry, urging stronger action.

In a sign of the case’s delicacy, officials with the Ministry of Justice and the Ulema Council, which advises the president on religious matters, refused to discuss it, even to talk in general about the law as it applies to conversion, which is not mentioned in the Afghan criminal code.

A senior prosecutor closely involved in Mr. Mussa’s case, however, suggested that officials were feeling the weight of international pressure.

"Based on Shariah law, whoever converts from Islam should be sentenced to death," said the prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But based on international agreements that Afghanistan has accepted and agreed with, Sayed Mussa has a chance to be released."

The Afghan government has not executed anyone for religious crimes since the Taliban’s fall, though at least one person has been sentenced to death: Parvez Kambakhsh, a journalism student, who in 2008 was condemned for blasphemy for distributing material found on the Internet questioning women’s rights under Islam. A court later commuted the sentence to 20 years before President Hamid Karzai pardoned him.

Another man, Shoaib Assadullah Musawi, has been jailed in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif since November after being accused of giving the New Testament to a friend, who then turned him in.

Afghan and American legal experts say such cases are rare. But in the handful that have emerged publicly, it has taken Western intervention to secure a release, leaving the central ambiguities in the Constitution unresolved.

"The problem of not following due process and not properly defining constitutional limits and rights is across the board," said Scott Worden, senior rule of law adviser for Afghanistan for the United States Institute of Peace. "It’s one of many signs that Afghanistan’s legal system has a long way to go before it can be considered up to international standards."

An ethnic Hazara, a minority group long oppressed in Afghanistan, Mr. Mussa grew up a Shiite Muslim in the central highlands around Bamian Province. He lost his leg to a land mine as a young man serving in the army of the Soviet-backed government. For the last 16 years before his arrest, he worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross, helping amputees get fitted with artificial limbs.

He became intrigued by Christianity, he said, when a jet bombed a neighbor’s home in Kabul where he lived during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. The home’s owner, an impoverished porter with eight children, was at the market when the bomb hit, killing seven of his family members. But not long after, two foreign women drove up and helped dig through the rubble amid gunfire from factional forces.

"When I saw these women and their compassion for my people, it affected me," he said. "I asked people who they were and they said they are the followers of Jesus Christ."

In time he found another Afghan Christian in his neighborhood who gave him a copy of the New Testament, and later baptized him.

He now spends his days at Kabul Detention Center, living in a corridor among a handful of other prisoners. He signed an agreement late last year with a foreign lawyer but then never saw him again. Unbeknownst to Mr. Mussa, a judge barred the lawyer, a South African, from representing or seeing Mr. Mussa.

A second lawyer visited last month, Mr. Mussa said. But to him the lawyer seemed more like a prosecutor, asking him who converted him, who prayed with him and if he believed the Koran was the complete book of God.

"If you go back to Islam, I can help you," Mr. Mussa recalled the lawyer, Mohammad Mostafa, saying.

Mr. Mostafa, who declined interview requests, works for the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, which said he still represented Mr. Mussa. His boss, Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, said defense lawyers - a profession barely a few years old here - were loath to take apostasy cases, fearing reprisals from the authorities and the public.

Mr. Nooristani has even heard mullahs broadcast ominous warnings during Friday Prayer. "They said people who represent infidels are also infidels," he said.

Mr. Mussa, meanwhile, longs to see his wife and children again. He wants either to be freed or to go to court, even if it means his execution. "Staying in here," he said, "is like dying every minute."

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