Martyrs and magistrates

ArabicBible2In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman is facing execution for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity. This story is huge in the European and Canadian press and gaining coverage stateside every day. Similarly, other countries seem to be officially condemning the action more than U.S. officials have thus far. German and Italian officials have condemned the human-rights violation but so far the only words from America's executive branch came from the third-highest senior official at the State Department. And, from Reuters, check out his rousing defense of a man who is about to die for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity:

"We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld and in our view, if it's upheld, then of course he'll be found to be innocent," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranked diplomat.

An Afghan judge said on Sunday a man named Abdur Rahman had been jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again. Sharia, or Islamic law, stipulates death for apostasy.

"While we understand the complexity of a case like this and we certainly will respect the sovereignty of the Afghan authorities and the Afghan system, from an American point of view, people should be free to choose their own religion," Burns told reporters ...

The Bush administration may need to bring out a slightly bigger gun -- and slightly more compelling rhetoric -- if it wants to help Rahman. But why hasn't Bush addressed the matter? And why aren't reporters asking him about it?

Bush held a press conference on Tuesday morning where reporters had the chance to ask hard-hitting questions and put him on the spot. Why not ask him why American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan so that a government that executes Christians can be put in place? For a media obsessed with President Bush's supposed hardline Christianity, they could press him a bit. Or maybe they were too busy composing really tough questions such as "Why did you really want to go to war?" Seriously, Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson is tougher on Bush than is the press corps:

Is this the fruit of democracy? Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free? What have we accomplished for overthrowing the Taliban? This is the kind of thing we would expect from the Taliban, not from President Karzai and his freely elected democratic government.

The Times of London had an interesting article complete with a list of areas where Christians have been persecuted in recent years. They talked with the judge deciding whether an Afghan man should be executed for converting to Christianity. The judge says he does not understand what the big deal is:

"It is a crime to convert to Christianity from Islam. He is teasing and insulting his family by converting. In your country (Britain) two women can marry; 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 paper had some great analysis and perspective on the situation, including this bit of intel from Rahman's cellmate (Rahman is not allowed to speak to reporters):

Sayad Miakhel, told The Times: "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 . . ." Mr Miakhel, 30, said that conditions in the prison were basic, with 50 men to a cell built for 15. "Most prisoners have food brought to them by their families, but none of Abdul's family have been to visit. I'm not sure how he is eating."

"He seems depressed. He keeps looking up to the sky, to God," said Mr Miakhel.

Most reporters are doing a good job of using Rahman's story as a hook to explore the lack of religious freedom in Afghanistan, but one reporter's story stands out in particular. Kim Barker, a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, has a meaty piece that explores the family drama that led to Rahman getting busted, describes the religious landscape in Afghanistan and includes some frightening and violent quotes about what Rahman faces. Barker worked on the Tribune's series, "Struggle for the soul of Islam," before taking a job covering Afghanistan. Here, she provides some perspective:

Rahman's trial, which started Thursday, is thought to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan. It goes to the heart of the struggle between Islamic reformists and fundamentalists in the country, which is still recovering from 23 years of war and the harsh rule of the Taliban, a radical religious regime that fell in late 2001.

Even under the more moderate government now in power, Islamic law is supposed to be followed, and many believe it requires the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam for another religion.

noose2There was also an interesting and noteworthy headline change to the piece. The original headline was:

Afghan man faces death for being a Christian
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It's been corrected to read:

Afghan man faces death for abandoning Islam
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It's an important change and one that reporters, copyeditors and editors should keep in mind with this story. Technically speaking, converting to Christianity in a Muslim country will probably not get you killed or otherwise punished -- so long as you are not Muslim to begin with (thae judge's comment above notwithstanding). Certainly non-Muslims are not viewed the same way as Muslims from a legal standpoint -- and this caveat manifests itself in wildly divergent ways -- but it's not being Christian that is the crime. Rather, the crime is leaving the Muslim religion.

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