ISLAMABAD -- Thousands of radical Islamists rallied on Friday in northwestern Pakistan in support of a man accused of walking into a courtroom in the city of Peshawar earlier this week and gunning down a U.S. citizen on trial in a blasphemy case.
The American, Tahir Naseem, died of his wounds before he could be taken to a hospital while the suspect, Faisal Khan, was taken into custody.
The State Department said Naseem was standing trial after being "lured to Pakistan" from his home in Illinois and entrapped by the country's controversial blasphemy law, which international rights groups have sought to have repealed. The U.S. statement did not elaborate on the circumstances in which Naseem came to be in the South Asian country.
The blasphemy law calls for the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam. But in Pakistan, the mere allegation of blasphemy can cause mobs to riot and vigilantes to kill those accused.
"We are shocked, saddened, and outraged that American citizen Tahir Naseem was killed yesterday inside a Pakistani courtroom," read the State Department statement, released on Thursday.
Pakistani officials said Naseem was charged with blasphemy after he declared himself Islam's prophet. Police in Peshawar, who originally identified him as Tahir Shameem Ahmed but later corrected themselves, said he was arrested two years ago.
The assailant also initially was identified incorrectly, as Khalid Khan. It was later learned his real name is Faisal Khan. It wasn't clear how he managed to enter the courtroom on Wednesday and get past security stations with a weapon.
"We urge Pakistan to immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law," said the statement issued by Cale Brown, the State Department's principal deputy spokesperson.
However, in deeply conservative Pakistan, any attempt to even amend the blasphemy law to make it more difficult to lodge charges or abuse it has brought mobs out on the street.
At the rally in Peshawar, the demonstrators carried signs praising Khan for the killing, calling for his immediate release from jail and saying he killed Naseem because the government was too slow in prosecuting blasphemy cases.
"We are not in favor of taking the law into our own hands, but Faisal did what the government should have done two years ago," said Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai, who led the rally through the narrow streets of the old city.
Although Pakistani authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, there are scores of accused on death row. Most are Muslims and many belong to the Ahmadyya sect of Islam, reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics.
Besides the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Freedom condemned Naseem's killing.
"Pakistan's blasphemy laws are indefensible to begin with, but it is outrageous beyond belief that the Pakistani government was incapable of keeping an individual from being murdered within a court of law for his faith, and a U.S. citizen, nonetheless," commission member Johnnie Moore said in a statement.
"Pakistan must protect religious minorities, including individuals accused of blasphemy, in order to prevent such unimaginable tragedies," Moore said in the statement.
The commission declared Pakistan a "country of particular concern" in its recent 2020 report because of its treatment of minority groups.
Religious minorities in Pakistan are increasingly under attack even as Prime Minister Imran Khan preaches a "tolerant" Pakistan.
Information for this article was contributed by Riaz Khan of The Associated Press.