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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

'I am not afraid to die'

Could one man's testimony be the seed of something great in Afghanistan?

'I am not afraid to die'

The story of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan fellow who was sentenced to death because he had converted to Christianity some 16 years ago, was changing so fast last week that it was hard to tell just which way it was going to go next. Maybe even harder, though, was knowing which way you wanted it to go.

I'll admit that seems like a harsh thing to say. But let me put it in perspective by asking this: Which would have been better 50 years ago-for the God of all mercy to rescue five missionaries to the Indians of Ecuador, or to let them be murdered by the people to whom they wanted so much to take the gospel? Which would have been better for the missionaries' families? For the Indians of Ecuador? For the evangelical church in North America? For the kingdom of God at large?

And what about the tens of thousands of people around the world who became Christians through the ministry of the thousands of missionaries who volunteered for service after the five men were martyred? And their children and the generations who will follow them?

It was hard not to think of all those issues when you listened to the courageous words of Abdul Rahman. "I am a Christian," he said boldly while holding a Bible up for all to see. "I am not afraid to die." You couldn't help thinking about how Stephen's face was said to have been shining as he was being stoned to death in the book of Acts. And you really didn't want to see Abdul Rahman's radiance dimmed by some cheesy compromise.

Of course, you also didn't want to see him die. All apart from the fear and dismay we felt for him personally were the ramifications of his possible execution in terms of foreign relations all around the world. It would be, of course, the very last thing the Bush administration needed just now. It would be no help at all to the supposedly moderate government of Afghanistan. It would diminish to the vanishing point whatever credibility any moderate Muslim anywhere might still have left. Might such an event be the point of ignition for a worldwide conflagration of the sort we have all been dreading so much?

But it was also hard to hope for what might happen when the charges were dropped. Especially when the terms of his March 27 dismissal were that this gutsy guy would simply be called insane, it is hard to see as much glory in that kind of martyrdom. And what benefit would there be if the state turned him loose only to have angry mobs of Muslims tear him limb from limb-which was exactly what some of the Afghan religious leaders were urging?

"It's clear that a man who converts has to be killed," said Abdul Raoulf, a senior Muslim cleric seen, until recently, as a moderate who had several times actually been jailed by the Taliban. "Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be insulted. . . . They should cut off his head, and pull him into pieces so there's nothing left." It was as if the cleric wanted to demonstrate the absolute futility of all the U.S. effort that has been poured into Afghanistan over the last four years.

"This is a young democracy," countered Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State. "They do have a constitution, which if they treat carefully, promising things will happen. A constitution is something Afghanistan never had under the Taliban. The constitution they have adopted is clear in its support for a universal declaration of human rights."

A flat-out contradiction? Probably not. I write this from Dayton, Ohio, where Orville and Wilbur Wright more or less perfected the airplane credited with launching human travel through the air. I say "more or less" because the Wright brothers' first flight was a mere 120 feet in 12 seconds-before it came to an embarrassing end.

Afghanistan's first democratically elected government may or may not fly. I cannot join the skeptics who say that the case of Abdul Rahman is proof that the U.S. investment in his country has been in vain. Disappointing, confusing, and even terrifying? Yes. But maybe it is necessary one more time for a man to die for his people. It may be the only way really to dramatize how truly awful is the religion to which they hold so tenaciously.