Abdul Rahman Jawed, Afghanistan's most famous Christian, is a free man. He has escaped the threat of execution for apostasy and been granted asylum in Italy, where he arrived on March 30.
But the central question his case has raised is not so easily resolved. At issue is whether Afghanistan can be both a democratic state and an Islamic republic.
Many are still stunned by how a domestic issue blew up into an international incident. Abdul Rahman, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working for a relief organisation in Pakistan, spent nine years in Germany before recently being deported back to Afghanistan. The divorced father of two was seeking to regain custody of his daughters from his parents. But his own father, Abdul Manan, reported him to the police, claiming that his son was unfit to raise the children because of his conversion to Christianity. The police promptly arrested Rahman.
"Yes, I handed my son over to the police because he was a Christian," said Abdul Manan. "Now I will respect whatever the courts decide."
It was clear from the start that the case put the government of President Hamed Karzai in an impossible position. On one hand, it needed to justify the western view of Afghanistan as a fledgling democracy by showing that it would defend basic human rights, including freedom of religion. But to placate the Afghan people, it also needed to show that it would enforce the laws of this staunchly Islamic republic.
The contradiction is enshrined in Afghanistan's new constitution. Article Seven states that the country supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its unambiguous mandate of religious freedom. But Article Three states just as clearly that Islamic law takes precedence over any other legal considerations. International religious scholars may debate the finer points of Islamic law regarding the Abdul Rahman affair. But within Afghanistan there remains a clear and harsh consensus: he deserves to die.
"Islam states that those who convert to another religion should be killed," said Abdul Malik Kamawi, deputy chairman of the Supreme Court.
"We cannot forget the dictates of Islam or of God," said Maulawi Habibullah Hassam, a religious scholar who heads Kabul's provincial council. "According to Islam, the punishment for apostasy is death. If a Muslim converts to another religion, he puts 1.5 billion Muslims in danger. They will think, 'This man was with us, but now he is leaving.'"
The sentiment on the street was strongly against the convert.
"I thank my God that I am a Muslim," said Ahmad Farhad, 25, who sells car parts in a Kabul market. "We hate people like Abdul Rahman. He should be killed. If they give him to me, I will cut him into small pieces with a knife."
So fierce is the feeling against him that Abdul Rahman was released into protective custody. The justice ministry was made responsible for ensuring his safety until he was able to leave the country. But what seems like a cut-and-dried case in Kabul unleashed a torrent of international outrage.
According to Abdullah Abdullah, the country's outgoing foreign minister, the Afghan embassy in Washington received more than 10,000 messages in one day protesting Rahman's arrest.
"Every meeting I had in the United States involved a discussion of the Abdul Rahman case," he told a press conference in Kabul upon his return from an extended trip.
President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both expressed concern, the Pope asked for clemency, and German chancellor Angela Merkel made a phone call. All had the same message -- Afghanistan would forfeit international support if it proceeded with the case. The international media also weighed in, condemning Afghanistan and advising their own governments to pull out of the country if the young democracy could not demonstrate elementary respect for human rights.
"If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taliban days, it can do so without the help of the United States," the New York Times said in an editorial on March 23.
Caught between domestic fury and international pressure, the Karzai government frantically sought a face-saving way to duck the dispute. It eventually hit upon the idea of having Abdul Rahman declared incompetent to stand trial. According to Islamic law, the defendant cannot be punished for apostasy if he is shown to be mentally ill.
"We released him because under the law we could not hold him any longer without charging him," said Mohammad Eshaq Alako, the deputy attorney general. "We are now waiting for the results of his doctors' examination. It looks like he has mental problems."
Other officials insisted the government had not bowed to Western pressure.
"It is completely untrue that there is diplomatic pressure on us," insisted Ansarullah Maulawizada, the head of the Kabul lower court which was handling the case. "We are working freely and independently." He added that the investigation preceding the court case had suffered "technical problems."
Protests within the country show no sign of diminishing. Over the weekend, Afghan clerics demanded that Rahman -- who has asked to be called Joel, the name he was baptized under -- be returned to Afghanistan and sentenced to death. Nearly 1,000 people rallied in the town of Kunduz to protest the government's handling of the case.
Despite renewed pledges by the Afghan government to eradicate the drug trade, those who produce the raw material for heroin insist they have no alternative. In a televised press conference following his recent electoral victory, President Hamed Karzai vowed to redouble efforts to halt drug trafficking.
"There will definitely, definitely not be any drug thing in Afghanistan, we are going to be dedicated, strong in working against that," he said.
Yet, even as he was speaking, the autumn harvest was under way. In southwestern, eastern and northeastern parts of the country, farmers are expecting a bumper crop – and the biggest yields will be from opium poppies. Farmers across the country insist that they will continue to plant and harvest poppies until the government provides them with alternative crops and financial support.
"We are not able to support our families unless we grow opium," said Tela Mohammad, from Mer Mandab district, Helmand province. "The government wants to prevent its cultivation, but doesn't help farmers."
He said he would keep growing opium, "even if it costs me my head."
Farmers throughout Afghanistan said that the main reasons they depend on opium crops are long-running drought and widespread poverty. They complain the government hasn't been able to find a better solution.
Ashiqullah, from the village of Jazib in Helmand province, said, "We have an irrigation problem in our area. There isn't enough water in the rivers to irrigate the fields properly, and we don't get a better harvest. So we have to grow opium, because there is not enough water for wheat and corn."
But government officials focus on public awareness campaigns, rather than taking any concrete step to prevent rising production.
"We inform people in the villages that we will destroy their fields if they cultivate opium," said Dad Mohammad, head of police of Helmand. "We won't let anyone grow it."
Ahmadullah Alizai, head of the counter-narcotics department for southwestern Afghanistan, said, "According to decree no. 53 of President Karzai, no one has the right to grow opium, and we have informed all farmers."
Despite such pledges, opium cultivation continues. And farmers warn that if the government cracks down, they will fight back.
Sher Agha, from the village of Shah Karez in Kandahar province, said, "If the government uses power, people will resist."
Mer Dad of Shenwar district in Nangarhar province, said he would take extreme measures to protect his opium crop.
"I must support 17 family members – I can't let them to die from hunger," he said. "I will even plant mines to preserve my fields."
Government officials have promised seed, equipment and medicines for farmers as an incentive to stop growing opium. But in eastern provinces of Afghanistan such as Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan, farmers have continued growing opium despite such promises.
Farhad, from Rodaat district in Nangarhar province, said he owed a lot of money to various people and was relying on opium to get him out of debt. "God willing, if I can harvest 35 kilos of opium, then all my problems will be solved," he said.
In Nangarhar, a key growing region, the government has even attempted aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy crop. Thus far, such attempts have not been very effective.
In the north, farmers are also sceptical of the government's ability to curtail opium production.
"Growing anything else isn't that profitable," said Sufi Payenda of the village of Yangi Hariq, in Balkh province. "We can't sustain our lives by growing other plants, so we won't stop growing opium."
Sayed Mohammed was irrigating his fields in near the village of Arzankar village in the Chahar Bulak district of Balkh province. "I grow opium on two jerib [4,000 square metres] of land near the stream. And when this land is ready, I will grow it here as well," he said.
Farmers in the north said they would continue to grow opium even if it puts their lives at risk.
"We will die from hunger if we don't grow opium," said Malim Mohammad Zaher, from village of Kutaki in Balkh province. "Even if the government tries to kill us, we won't stop."
Just as in other regions, efforts by officials in the north to stop opium production have failed.
Mohammed Tayeb, head of the education department at the agricultural institute in Balkh, said there are 439 villages in the province which each grow opium on an area of at least 54 jerib [108,000 square meters] of land. According to him, the majority of farmers in the region are growing some opium.
One reason the government has been so ineffective in combating the narcotics trade is because of the widespread participation of militia groups and local officials. Mohammed Zahir Haqbar, head of the counter-narcotics department in the interior ministry, accused some officials of being involved in trafficking drugs abroad.
"No one would dare [participate in trafficking] unless some governmental officials were involved in this business," he said.
However, there is hope that with international assistance, the government can make a dent in opium production.
General Mohammed Daud, deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics, said that over the next three years, the United States and Great Britain will help Afghan farmers through dam construction and the provision of seed and fertilizer. And he promised more robust enforcement of narcotics laws.
"The government is more capable than in previous years, and we have strong support from the international community," he said. "We should decrease production of narcotics by 50 per cent every year."
Daud said it is time for the government to declare holy war – jihad – on narcotics.
"It is jihad, and there is no greater service that can be rendered to Afghans and the people of the world," he said. "It is our religious, Islamic duty."
The United Kingdom has pledged $6.83 million to fund a two year UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) project to help eliminate opium production in Afghanistan by developing alternative livelihoods in the country's main poppy producing areas, the Organization announced today. The funding is for the first phase of a $25.5 million five year multidonor program developed by the FAO to support alternative agricultural livelihoods, targeting more than 1.5 million people in poppy producing provinces.
Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. This report drew on material from the Pajhwok news agency, an IWPR project.