The case of Abdul Rahman—the Afghan Christian convert who was arrested for apostasy before being released and given asylum in Italy—has been long expected by religious freedom observers. Despite few guarantees of religious freedom, evangelicals have largely supported democratization in the Middle East. But, some evangelical leaders say, that support may not last if more Christians are sentenced to death.

In his BreakPoint commentary, Chuck Colson said, "I have supported the Bush administration's foreign policy because I came to believe that the best way to stop Islamo-fascism was by promoting democracy. But if we can't guarantee fundamental religious freedoms in the countries where we establish democratic reforms, then the whole credibility of our foreign policy is thrown into serious question."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, "How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by Islamists who kill Christians? … Americans will not give their blood and treasure to prop up new Islamic fundamentalist regimes. Democracy is more than purple thumbs."

Support remains

Despite the initial outrage, evangelicals still largely support democratization efforts in the Middle East. "I don't think this vitiates support for Bush's foreign policy," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. A higher percentage of evangelicals support democracy-building than the general population, Land says. That won't dissipate because of the Rahman case.

Yet, Land says, if Americans continue to die and continue to send billions of dollars to countries that don't protect basic human rights, more evangelicals will begin to protest. "If indeed it turns out that there is suppression of religious freedom in countries that are receiving American aid, American taxpayers will demand that violations cease or aid will cease."

"If the administration doesn't pay attention to this, they will lose support," says Bill Saunders, human rights counsel at the Family Research Council. "Americans are getting killed; billions are being spent. And even when we design the constitution it doesn't protect religious freedom."

Afghan law still allows for the execution of Muslims who convert to another religion. Rahman was released on a technicality. "The problem," Saunders says, "is the career state department officials. They don't see the role religious freedom plays in democracy. I'm not sure it's the Bush administration's fault."

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However, Saunders says, attempts to make those officials aware of religious freedom issues while writing the Iraqi constitution were unsuccessful. The State Department leaned too heavily on the American Bar Association, he says. "They don't get religious freedom. They don't understand how fundamental it is."

Beyond politics

It was wrong for some Christian leaders to turn a human rights issue into a matter of satisfying a political base, says Robert Seiple, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and president/CEO of Council for America's First Freedom, a secular religious freedom education institute.

"Relative to what's at stake, it's trivial," Seiple says. "What was at stake was a violation of the core principle of the universality of the human right of religious liberty."

"This is the most distinctive gift that America has to give. We've been working this for 200 years, and we've earned the right to export it, but we also have international covenants," says Seiple. "When something happens, we have the right to speak out on the highest of principles."

It's wrong to abuse that right by talking of religious freedom in terms of satisfying a political base, says Seiple. "We diminish our responsibility when we lower to a common denominator. This is what politics can do."

The U.S. has taken the lead internationally in pressing for religious freedom. "If not for government of the U.S. raising these issues, it would not be on the radar screen of most of the countries of the world," says Land. "I've never been prouder to be an American than since I've been on the commission [on international religious freedom]."

"The problem is there is so much more to do," Land says.

Human rights and religious freedom

Rahman's release leaves many dissatisfied. "If Rahman is released or found to be mentally unstable or if this is one-time deal making, what we have is not universal freedom of conscience, but government benevolence," says Seiple. "It peaks and valleys depending on how winds are blowing."

"There is nothing in place that would stop this kind of thing [in the future]," says Saunders. "We and other organizations have been trying to get more protection for religious freedom, particularly in Iraq. But we haven't been able to do it."

Land urges a realistic expectation for other countries' practice of religious freedom. "Our standard is not and should not be the U.S. Constitution. It is the best solution yet devised to guarantee maximum freedom of conscience. But we can't demand it. If the people of Iraq chose to make Islam the state religion, that is their choice."

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"There is only so much government can do to make a situation right," says Seiple. "There are limitations on government that suggest we ratchet down our expectations."

However, we can urge countries to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says Land. Muslim countries "don't have the right to give preference to Islam and say we will imprison, kill, or make you a second-class citizen if you convert from Islam," says Land.

Related Elsewhere:

More Christianity Today articles on religious freedom in the Middle East include:

Religious Freedom Isn't Free | Rights to faith and liberty are at risk in Afghanistan. A CT editorial (April 6, 2006)
Whose Law in Afghanistan? | High-profile apostasy case highlights legal contradictions. (April 6, 2006)
Cartoon Chaos | Muslims aren't the only ones guilty of acting out inappropriately. (March 14, 2006)
Iraq Churches Attacked Again | Threats renewed against Christian Peacemaker Teams workers. (Jan. 31, 2006)
Longing to Be Heard | It's dangerous and lonely to be an Iraqi Christian—at home or in exile. (March 21, 2005)
The Risks of Regime Change | Middle Eastern Christians might end up more repressed under democracy than under dictators. (March 18, 2005)

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has a comparative study of Muslim constitutions that discusses the variety of ways Muslim countries balance Islam, religious freedom, and church-state separation.

NPR spoke with Richard Land and Rich Cizik about how the case would effect evangelicals' support for Bush's foreign policy.

CT's full coverage of religious freedom and persecution issues is available on our site:

CT's full coverage on Afghanistan is available on our site.

More on Iraq's Christian community is available in our full coverage area.