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Rahman: Certain Death For Converts

An Afghan man who has taken refuge in Italy after facing the death penalty in his homeland for converting from Islam to Christianity thanked the pope for intervening on his behalf and said he was certain he would have been killed if he had remained in Kabul.

"In Kabul they would have killed me, I'm sure of it," said Abdul Rahman, who is under protection after being spirited out of Afghanistan to a secret location in Italy. "If you are not a Muslim in an Islamic country like mine they kill you, there are no doubts."

He said his case was to serve as an example "to others who dared rebel."

Rahman made his comments in a short interview with a group of Italian journalists hours after Italy, citing religious persecution, formally granted him asylum, the ministry said. Television footage on RAI1's TG1 evening news showed a few people gathered around a small table. It never showed Rahman's face, and Italy's Interior Ministry has said that Rahman was "under protection."

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Rahman arrived in Italy before dawn on Wednesday, hours before the conservative leader announced that the Italian government would take him in.

His case has attracted wide attention in the West and led to calls by the U.S. and other governments for the Afghan government to protect the convert.

The pope had appealed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the United Nations sought a country to take him in after Muslim clerics in Afghanistan threatened his life, saying his conversion was a "betrayal to Islam."

In a letter to Karzai dated March 22, Pope Benedict XVI had said that dropping the case "would bestow great honor upon the Afghan people and would raise a chorus of admiration in the international community."

Since his arrival in Italy, however, the Vatican has made no comments. There was no indication of any plan to arrange a meeting between the pope and the convert.

"Thanks to the (Italian) government. And thanks to Pope Benedict XVI. The pontiff took an interest in my case, and thanks to him the U.N. intervened," Rahman told reporters.

Rahman was let out of prison Monday after a court dismissed charges of apostasy against him because of lack of evidence and suspicions he might be mentally ill.

Deputy Attorney-General Mohammed Eshak Aloko said prosecutors had issued a letter calling for Rahman's release because "he was mentally unfit to stand trial."

CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar quotes one investigator as saying the testimony included a statement from Rahman's daughter that said he has mental problems.

Conversion is a crime under Afghanistan's Islamic law. Rahman, 41, was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible. He was brought to trial last week for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Italy has close ties with Afghanistan, whose former king, Mohammed Zaher Shah, was allowed to live with his family in exile in Rome for 30 years. The former royals returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime.

Italian troops were sent into Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2001 to help with reconstruction and Italy still has 1,775 troops there.

Rahman's ordeal began as a custody dispute over his two daughters, now 13 and 14. The girls lived with their grandparents, but Rahman sought custody when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after living in Germany for nine years. A custody battle ensued and the matter was taken to police.

During questioning, it emerged that Rahman was a Christian and was carrying a Bible. He was immediately arrested and charged.

Rahman said he was worried for his family, which was still in Afghanistan.