(Editor’s note: Adds U.N. High Commission for Refugees' comment)
(CNSNews.com) – An Afghan convert to Christianity facing the death penalty for apostasy has been freed, but others remain in prison, and advocacy groups say the underlying problem – the glaring absence of religious freedom in a country where American and other soldiers are fighting and dying – must be addressed.
Said Musa, a 46 year-old Red Cross worker arrested last May, was freed from prison in recent days “after aggressive international diplomacy engaged Afghanistan’s government,” the Washington-based group International Christian Concern announced Thursday.
ICC cited a U.S. Embassy official as saying this week that Musa was safely out of the country.
Musa, an amputee who lost a leg in a landmine explosion while in the Afghan army, became a Christian eight years ago.
He was among a group of at least 26 Christians arrested in May last year, after an Afghan television station screened footage of Christian converts being baptized, sparking a public furor and calls in parliament for the “apostates” to be executed.
In a letter written from prison on February 13, Musa said that after being offered asylum by representatives of the U.S. and Italian embassies, he was told by Afghan officials that he would be released within 24 hours if he wrote a statement declaring his regret for converting from Islam, ICC said.
“I laughed and told replied, ‘I cannot deny my Savior’s name,’” he wrote. “I refused their demands.”
Aidan Clay, ICC regional manager for the Middle East, warmly welcomed Musa’s release, but added that “the battle has not yet been won.”
He pointed to another Afghan Christian arrested for his faith, Shoaib Assadullah.
“We still have a long road ahead before we witness religious freedom in Afghanistan,” Clay said.
Assadullah, who is in his early- to mid-20s, is being held in a prison in the northern Mazar-e-Sharif district.
According to Barnabas Fund, a charity that helps Christians in Islamic societies, he was arrested in October after giving a New Testament in the national Dari language to another Afghan, who reported him to the authorities.
Assadullah has been threatened with the death penalty for apostasy unless he returns to Islam, Barnabas Fund says.
The organization this week also drew attention to the plight of six Afghan Christians, four of whom had featured in the controversial May 2010 television program, who fled to India and applied for asylum.
The six – two couples and two sisters – have recently had their asylum applications rejected by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, according to Barnabas Fund.
“They now face deportation to Afghanistan, where they risk arrest and possible execution for apostasy under the country’s shari’a-based law,” the organization said.
“The cases of these six dear brothers and sisters highlight the fact that Afghan converts to Christianity are safe neither inside nor outside the country,” said Barnabas Fund international director Patrick Sookhdeo. “It is a disgrace that they have been denied refuge when their very lives depend on it.”
Nayana Bose, external relations officer for UNHCR in New Delhi, said Friday that the agency as a matter of policy does not discuss the details of individual cases.
“Generally if a case is finally rejected it means that at least four different legal officers have had the opportunity to assess the claim and have found the applicant not to be in need of international protection,” she told CNSNews.com.
Ninety-nine percent of Afghanistan’s 29 million people are Muslim. After U.S.-led forces in late 2001 ousted the fundamentalist Taliban militia that ruled most of the country, refugees returning to the country included a small number of Afghans who had converted to Christianity while living abroad, boosting the tiny indigenous community.
The State Department says estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 500 to 8,000.
The Western-backed post-Taliban government signed a new constitution into law in January 2004 that claims to both uphold freedom of religion and enshrines the primacy of Islamic law (shari’a).
Article two states that Islam is the official religion, but “followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rights.”
Article three, however, states that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam.”
And article 149 states that adherence to the tenets of Islam “shall not be amended.”
Under shari’a, any Muslim man who abandons his faith is guilty of apostasy. Leading Islamic scholars have ruled that the offense is punishable by death.
This is not the first time that apostasy issue has prompted condemnation in countries whose soldiers are helping to secure President Hamid Karzai’s administration and the Afghan people against an unrelenting Taliban insurgency.
A Christian convert from Islam named Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death in 2006 for apostasy, and only after the U.S. and other coalition members applied pressure on the Karzai government was he freed and allowed to leave the country.
‘What are we fighting for?’
Some 1,400 U.S. troops and more than 350 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
“What are we fighting for?” Barnabas Fund asked in a memo earlier this month.
“Despite these ongoing and costly efforts to support the new government and constitution, Afghan citizens – especially converts to Christianity – are being denied the fundamental right to choose their own faith,” it said.
“As long as the West continues to prop up the Karzai regime and refuses to demand tougher action by the Afghan government to uphold its international agreements, it is surely complicit in the persecution of converts to Christianity such as Said and Shoaib.”
In a letter to President Obama early this week urging him to secure Musa’s release Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, also raised the point of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan.
“[W]e cannot stand idly by while a fellow human being is tortured and executed merely for exercising his freedom of conscience,” he wrote. “This flies in the face of everything we say we are fighting for in Afghanistan.”
“There is absolutely no religious freedom in the country where our troops are spilling their blood,” Open Doors USA president Carl Moeller said Thursday in his response to news of Musa’s release.
He noted that Afghanistan ranked number three this year on Open Doors’ annual watchlist of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians.
Asked about the Musa case at his monthly press conference earlier this month, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen replied that “a sentence to death or any punishment for converting from one religion to the another is in strong contradiction with everything NATO stands for.”
“Though we are primarily in Afghanistan for the sake of our own security to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists, we are of course very much aware of and are monitoring the human rights situation on the ground,” he said.