Under mounting foreign pressure, Hamid Karzai is searching for a way to free the Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity without angering Muslim clerics who have called for him to be killed.

But clerics have questioned Karzai's authority to order Abdul Rahman's release and have warned of a possible revolt if he tries.

"The Quran is very clear and the words of our prophet are very clear. There can only be one outcome: death," said cleric Khoja Ahmad Sediqi, who is also a member of the Supreme Court.

"If Karzai releases him, it will play into the hands of our enemy and there could be an uprising."

Case discussed

Karzai and several cabinet ministers on Saturday discussed the case of Abdul Rahman, who faces a possible death sentence for alleged apostasy, an official at Karzai's palace said.

But she declined to comment on the outcome of the talks.
Hours earlier, another official said Abdul Rahman "could be released soon".

Karzai is under Western pressure
to save Abdul Rahman's life

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter with the media.

Abdul Rahman, 41, was denounced by his own parents and arrested under Islamic Sharia law on his return to Afghanistan from Germany two weeks ago.

Abdul Rahman reportedly became a Christian 16 years ago in Germany. He faces execution under Sharia law, on which the Afghan constitution is partly based, if he fails to revert.

The case has attracted widespread international condemnation, especially from the US which led the campaign to remove Afghanistan's Taliban government.

American Christian lobby groups are urging George Bush, the US president, to do more to save Abdul Rahman, a former medical aid worker, whose trial will begin next week.

Clerics' threat

Earlier, religious and political figures meeting at a Kabul hotel, including former prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai and Shia cleric Asif Mohsenia who commanded anti-Soviet forces in the 1980s, said the government should ensure that Islamic law is enforced.

It said if its demands were ignored, "the Muslim people of Afghanistan would consider struggle their legal and religious duty".

The Afghan judiciary is known to
be a bastion of conservatism

The Afghan legal system is based on a mix of civil and sharia law.

Virtually everyone interviewed in a small sample of opinion in several parts of the deeply conservative, Muslim country on Friday said Abdul Rahman should be punished.

Several clerics raised the issue during weekly sermons in Kabul on Friday, and there was little sympathy for Abdul Rahman.

Britain, Australia, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Canada and the UN also voiced their concern, threatening to drive a rift between Afghanistan and the Western countries it relies on to rebuild after 20 years of war.
  
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, telephoned Karzai on Thursday to step up pressure to free Abdul Rahman.