An increasing number of groups and governments are calling on Afghanistan to honor the universal human right to religious practice and to release Abdul Rahman, who is being tried in an Afghan court for having converted to Christianity from Islam.

Rahman, 41, faces a possible death penalty for converting to Christianity 16 years ago. He has been charged with rejecting Islam, which is considered a crime under the country's Islamic laws. Rahman is expected to undergo a psychological examination. The trial will be dropped if he is found mentally unfit.

President George Bush said Wednesday he is “deeply troubled … that a person who converted away from Islam may be held to account.”

"We expect them [Afghanistan government] to honor the universal principle of freedom," Bush reportedly said, having requested the man’s release one day earlier. "I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship."

The Embassy of Afghanistan in the U.S. said it has received a significant number of inquiries about Rahman’s case and greatly appreciates the public concern.

“The Government of Afghanistan is fully aware of and pursuing the best ways to resolve Mr. Rahman’s case judicially,” said an embassy statement, released yesterday. “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 embassy statement underlined. “The Government of Afghanistan will ensure that the constitutional rights of its citizens, international principles, and the due judicial process are respected and implemented.”

These assurances, however, have not abated the calls for Rahman’s release from religious and human rights groups. “Abdul Rahman, along with every other Afghan citizen, deserves freedom of religion,” said Concerned Women of America president Wendy Wright.

Wright argued that the ruling in this case would set a precedent for what will follow in the budding democracy of Afghanistan. “We call on Afghanistan to spare this man’s life and ensure all Afghans can enjoy religious liberty,” she said. She also commended Rahman for his religious conviction in the face of adversity, calling him “an example to us all.”

In a letter to President Bush, Christian Freedom International also called for Rahman’s immediate release and indicated that his “is not an isolated incident.”

“The persecution of Christians is an increasing, unintended consequence of the War on Terror,” said Christian Freedom International president Jim Jacobson.

Rahman’s case is just “the tip of the iceberg,” said Jacobson. “There are thousands of other persecuted Christians in Islamic nations just like him. Becoming a Christian should not be considered a crime in Afghanistan or elsewhere.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties advocacy group based in Washington, also urged Afghanistan to release Rahman.

An editorial today in the New York Times called Afghanistan’s move to try and declare Rahman “mentally unfit” a “cheap trick” which would merely avoid the international mess and keep the Islamic law on the books indefinately.