U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to raise concern about an Afghan facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. President Bush has called the case deeply troubling.
The United States had raised the issue of the Christian convert, Abdul Rahman, through the U.S. embassy in Kabul some days ago.
But it has elevated the matter to the senior level amid an outcry over the case in the United States, and apparent inaction by Afghan authorities.
Rahman, 41, has been accused of apostasy, a capital offense, and jailed under Afghanistan's Islamic legal code even though the country's new constitution nominally guarantees freedom of religion.
He has said he converted to Christianity several years ago while working for a Christian aid group in Pakistan. His religious conversion became a legal issue when he went to court seeking custody of his two children.
Countries with troops serving in Afghanistan including Germany, Italy and Canada have all voiced concerns about the case.
U.S. Christian and conservative groups have urged the Bush administration to intervene, and President Bush said Wednesday he found the matter deeply troubling.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Secretary of State Rice called in Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who's visiting Washington, for a meeting on the issue late Wednesday, and followed it up with a telephone call to Afghan President Hamid Karzai Thursday morning.
The spokesman said the secretary told the Afghan officials the United States stands forthrightly for the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and urged a favorable resolution of the case at the earliest possible moment.
The Afghan embassy in Washington late Wednesday issued a statement urging public understanding of the sensitivity of the case, and also said Afghan authorities were evaluating questions about Rahman's mental fitness, giving rise to press speculation the case might be dropped on those grounds.
However Spokesman McCormack said the United States looks to a solution that would reaffirm Afghanistan's commitment to basic freedoms enshrined in its own constitution and in international human rights covenants:
"I've seen these news reports about this possible avenue to resolve the case. I think in our view, it's important that as this issue is resolved, and we do seek a favorable resolution to it at the earliest possible moment, that there be a reaffirmation of those principles which we do see in the Afghan constitution, and we share and are enshrined in documents around the world," he said. "These are universal values, as the president talked about yesterday, and they're fundamental values to any democracy and vitally important for emerging democracies as they struggle with these kind of issues."
In his remarks Wednesday, President Bush said the United States has influence in Afghanistan and intends to use it to remind Kabul authorities about the need to uphold universal values.
Spokesmen for U.S. Christian organizations say continued deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be hard to defend if a Christian convert was put to death.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, has also joined the call for Rahman to be released, saying Islam supports both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
The Afghan embassy statement reiterated that the country's constitution protects religious freedom and said the Kabul government will ensure that the constitutional rights of its citizens are respected. It urged that the judicial process be given time to resolve the Rahman case.