WHEELING, W.Va. – Initially, the case of convert Abdul Rahman attracted the attention of Christian groups, then it reached the radar of the State Department. Now, President Bush has weighed in on the case, saying he is "deeply troubled" that the Afghan man could face death for his religious decision.
Rahman, 41, a medical worker, converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago, a fact that came out publicly during a civil custody case between him and his wife in front of local authorities. The authorities charged him with rejecting Islam, a crime under the country's Shar'ia-based law. The penalty, if guilty, is death.
That's a penalty that concerns Bush, who said in a speech Wednesday that the young democracy in Afghanistan shouldn't be limiting the ability of its citizens to worship.
"We expect them to honor the universal principle of freedom," Bush said during a town hall meeting in Wheeling, W. Va. "It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another.
"I'm troubled when I hear, deeply troubled when I hear, the fact that a person who converted away from Islam may be held to account. That's not the universal application of the values that I talked about. I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship," he continued.
In a statement to the press on Wednesday, the Embassy of Afghanistan said it "greatly appreciates public concern" about Rahman, and the government is looking into the best way to resolve the case through the judiciary.
"It is too early to draw any conclusion about the punishment, and we appreciate public understanding of the sensitivity of religious issues. ... The constitution of Afghanistan provides protection for freedom of religion. The government of Afghanistan will ensure that the constitutional rights of its citizens, international principles, and the due judicial process are respected and implemented," the embassy statement said.
Rahman's trial started last week. On Wednesday, a state prosecutor developed the unique position of asserting insanity in Rahman's defense.
An official said Rahman may be "mad," and "he doesn't talk like a normal person."
Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Rahman would undergo a psychological examination and if he's found mentally unfit, he will have to be let go.
Yet, in a recent court appearance, the defendant appeared entirely cogent as he thumbed through his translated Bible and testified once more to his faith.
"I believe in Christianity. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I am a Christian," Rahman said.
At the State Department on Tuesday, Afghanistan's outgoing Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said in a press conference that the Afghan government has "nothing to do with" the prosecution. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who also participated in the news conference, underscored that people should be free to choose their own religion without penalty.
The continued prosecution of Rahman could cause major problems for Afghanistan. Both Germany and Italy, which have a combined force of 4,500 NATO troops patrolling Afghanistan, have expressed concern about Rahman's fate.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that even if the case were dismissed, that doesn't resolve the issue. McCormack said the fundamental problem is that an individual could be tried in the first place for converting.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said on Wednesday that Afghanistan needs to release Rahman. The group cited verses in the Quran to explain how it's wrong to persecute someone for choosing a different religion than Islam.
"Religious decisions should be matters of personal choice, not a cause for state intervention. Faith imposed by force is not true belief, but coercion. Islam has no need to compel belief in its divine truth. As the Quran states: 'Truth stands out clear from error. Therefore, whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks,' " according to a statement released by the group.
On Wednesday, an early champion of Rahman lamented that his predicament is hardly unique.
"This happens in Saudi Arabia, this happens in Pakistan — a number of Islamic countries. And, you know, this needs to be spoken against," said Jeff King, president of the International Christian Concern.
FOX News' James Rosen contributed to this report.