VATICAN CITY (AFP) – Pope Benedict XVI voiced his solidarity with all Christians "persecuted for their faith" and those who live in countries without religious freedom.

The Vatican announced Saturday that the pope had intervened in writing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai with an appeal for clemency towards a man facing a possible death sentence under Islamic Sharia law in Afghanistan for converting from Islam to Christianity.

The pope made his statement of solidarity from the window of his Vatican study during the Angelus prayer.

He said the Church was "close to all Christians who suffer persecution for the sake of their faith … including the sacrifice of those who have been killed".

"My thoughts turn particularly towards communities living in countries where religious freedom does not exist or exists on paper but is subject to numerous restrictions."

Benedict wished such sufferers "warm encouragement to persevere in the patience and love of Christ," and offered his "profound solidarity on behalf of the entire Church".

Vatican press chief Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement Saturday that the pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano had written to the Afghan president on behalf of the pope — in accordance with Vatican practice in diplomatic affairs — "concerning the fate of the Christian convert Abdul Rahman".

The ANSA news agency said the letter noted that human rights were enshrined in the preamble to the Afghan constitution.

A Vatican statement said the letter from the Holy See, written in English, had been motivated by "deep feelings of human compassion … for faith in the dignity of human life … for respect by all for freedom of conscience and religion".

Karzai is under extreme pressure from Western governments over the case of Rahman, 41, who faces the death penalty for apostasy.

A top government official said in Kabul earlier that Karzai had personally intervened and was consulting various government bodies to resolve the matter peacefully as soon as possible.

There was a "strong possibility" that Rahman would be freed Sunday after Karzai’s intervention, a senior government official said.

Karzai held a series of meetings Saturday to try to resolve the crisis, which developed after the Supreme Court said the convert should be put to death according to Sharia law, prompting an outcry in the West.

Rahman was arrested about two weeks ago after his parents went to the authorities, reportedly following a family dispute.

Last Tuesday US President George W. Bush expressed concern over Rahman’s fate, and similar worries have been voiced in France, Italy, Germany, Britain, Australia, Canada and Austria, as well as by UN and NATO spokesmen.

The Vatican has previously expressed concern over lack of religious freedom in certain Islamic countries.

The question of relations with Islam was raised last Thursday at a closed-door meeting of cardinals chaired by the pope.


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