KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Senior Muslim clerics are demanding that an Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity be executed, warning that if the government caves in to Western pressure and frees him, they will incite people to "pull him into pieces."
In an unusual move, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned President Hamid Karzai on Thursday seeking a "favorable resolution" of the case of Abdul Rahman. The 41-year-old former medical aid worker faces the death penalty under Afghanistan's Islamic laws for becoming a Christian.
His trial has fired passions in this conservative Muslim nation and highlighted a conflict of values between Afghanistan and its Western backers.
"Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die," said cleric Abdul Raoulf, who is considered a moderate and was jailed three times for opposing the Taliban before the hard-line regime was ousted in 2001.
"He is not crazy. He went in front of the media and confessed to being a Christian," said Hamidullah, chief cleric at Haji Yacob Mosque. "The government is scared of the international community. But the people will kill him if he is freed."
Raoulf, who is a member of the country's main Islamic organization, the Afghan Ulama Council, concurred. "The government is playing games. The people will not be fooled."
"Cut off his head!" he exclaimed, sitting in a courtyard outside Herati Mosque. "We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there's nothing left."
He said the only way for Rahman to survive would be for him to go into exile.
But Said Mirhossain Nasri, the top cleric at Hossainia Mosque, one of the largest Shiite places of worship in Kabul, said Rahman must not be allowed to leave the country.
"If he is allowed to live in the West, then others will claim to be Christian so they can, too," he said. "We must set an example. ... He must be hanged."
The clerics said they were angry with the United States and other countries for pushing for Rahman's freedom.
"We are a small country and we welcome the help the outside world is giving us. But please don't interfere in this issue," Nasri said. "We are Muslims and these are our beliefs. This is much more important to us than all the aid the world has given us."
Afghanistan's constitution is based on Sharia law, which is interpreted by many Muslims to require that any Muslim who rejects Islam be sentenced to death.