Christian convert in Afghanistan

March 27, 2006

I've been meaning to post this for a few days. The following is a combination of a couple of e-mails I sent to URI mailing lists looking for some dialogue on the issue. Since I wrote them, it has been announced that the man in question will be freed, at least for the time being, as they do not yet have sufficient evidence to actually prosecute him. I'm still interested in hearing individual views on the issue.

When I first saw the headlines about a Christian “apostate” a week ago, days ago, I suspected the issue would quickly come up in URI discussions. I too — with all due respect — am curious to hear a response from our Muslims friends and colleagues in this forum.

As a Baha’i I have become aware of Islam’s clear tradition linking apostasy with the punishment of execution. Though I have not personally found any statements in the Qur’an that absolutely advocate execution, there are Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) and commentary linking the crime and punishment (excellent article on the subject:

The Bahá'ís of Iran have long been under the thumb of apostasy. Since the Revolution, several hundred Bahá'ís have been killed, often for supposed apostasy. In a recent case (, an Iranian Bahá'í was sentenced to death ten years ago. His sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died in December under mysterious circumstances.

Though he had been a life-long Bahá'í, a neighbor had tried to protect him from persecution by telling the authorities that he was a Muslim. When directly questioned, he asserted that he was a Bahá'í. In the eyes of the local authorities, this was clear evidence of having embraced the faith of Islam and then turned away, thus making him an apostate. It is not an isolated case and has been a problem for the Bahá'ís ever since the 1840s (the origins of the Bahá'í Faith are in Iran in the 1840s, originally following the Prophet known as The Báb ("Gate" in Arabic), who established a new religion rooted in Islam in a fashion similar to Christianity’s roots in Judaism).

I am apt to defend the practice and faith of Islam in most circumstances, and do not wish to offend by addressing this issue. But I cannot in good conscience have any sympathy in this day and age with any sort of punishment for someone choosing their own religious path. And that has nothing to do with me being a Bahá'í — unless one says that my belief in individual choice with regard to religious belief and practice is itself rooted in the Bahá'í teachings (though my belief in the principle came before my belief in the Faith).

This is a serious and ongoing issue for millions of people around the world, one that raises many questions about the ability of religions to progress and adapt to new circumstances, including whether or not we should expect them to do so. Dave has eloquently given voice to several of those questions.

As a final note, I was thinking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this morning, wondering what it has to say about the issue and whether or not Afghanistan is a party to the Declaration. Article 18 says:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Afghanistan was one of 48 members of the General Assembly who voted to adopt the Declaration in 1948. The Declaration is not binding unless enforced by an additional Treaty or Convention, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I am not aware of any Treaties providing enforcement for Article 18.

Now I am ready –
 to listen and learn, –
With love –
     and respect –
for all Muslims and –
     religionists of every sort, –



I wonder if the outcry over this man's case would be half as intense if he had converted to any religion other than Christianity? If he had become a Bahá'í, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew? Make no mistake — I do not think the international community and the press should let up on this case. The reaction we are seeing is not over reaction. Coupled with a true dialogue on the nature and freedom of religious conscience, it would be a wholly justified and appropriate reaction. If this man is executed, then that would be true "religiously motivated violence," which should be addressed both with re-action and with dialogue to understand and overcome the causes of this violence.

I appreciated hearing about the Council for American-Islamic Relations' significant statement calling for the state to refrain from intervening in the personal decision of which, if any, religious tradition to follow. It is a bold and encouraging statement that gives me renewed hope for the long-term prospects of creating a "culture of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings."