(CNSNews.com) – Despite a series of abject apologies from the U.S. military and the Obama administration, fresh and growing protests were reported in at least two Afghan cities on Wednesday morning over the apparently unintentional burning of copies of the Qur’an at a U.S. military base.
Security officials said anti-U.S. demonstrations were taking place near a military base in Kabul and in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The Afghan Interior Ministry reported that at least seven people have been killed in the clashes.
The U.S. Embassy suspended travel in the capital, citing violent protests at the U.S. base, Camp Phoenix, “involving nearly 500 protestors burning tires and throwing rocks,” as well as near the university in the city’s west.
On Tuesday, after apologizing to “the noble people of Afghanistan” for the incident, International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. John Allen ordered all 130,000 coalition troops in the country to “complete training in the proper handling of religious materials” within the next fortnight.
The training, which must be completed by March 3, will include “the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage,” the NATO-led ISAF said in a statement.
“I’m going to take steps inside these headquarters to issue an order today on how we will handle religious materials for the faith of Islam, henceforth, by ISAF, so that something like this just cannot happen again,” Allen said in an interview on NATO’s television channel earlier in the day.
The directive followed the discovery Monday night that religious materials including copies of the Qur’an had been taken, with garbage, from a military detention center to a nearby incineration facility at the U.S. base in Bagram, some 40 miles north of Kabul.
Afghan government officials were quoted as saying Afghans workers had noticed the material and stopped the burning, but not before some of the books had been damaged.
Military officials told the Associated Press that Qur’ans had been removed from a library at the detention center because they were evidently being used by Afghan detainees to disseminate “extremist” messages.
As thousands of Afghans angered by news of the incident protested at Bagram, the military and administration offered several public apologies:
--In a statement published on the ISAF and U.S. military Web sites, sent to Afghan television networks and posted on YouTube, Allen offered his “sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan.”
--Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added his apologies for “the deeply unfortunate incident.”
--White House press secretary Jay Carney said he echoed Allen’s and Panetta’s apologies. “This was a deeply unfortunate incident that does not reflect the great respect our military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people,” he said.
--State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the incident “horrific,” telling a press briefing that Allen and Panetta had “apologized on behalf of the United States to the Afghan people and to people around the world who were offended by this conduct, which we all disapprove of.”
A reporter questioned Nuland’s use of the word “horrific,” noting it was the same term she used last week to describe deadly bombings in Syria. (Nuland also used the word “horrific” to describe suicide bombings by Nigerian Islamists last month that killed at least 150 people.)
“The desecration of religious articles is not in keeping with the standards of American tolerance, human rights practices, and freedom of religion,” she replied.
The apologies appear designed to defuse a potentially deadly situation. Exaggerated or unfounded rumors of Qur’an desecration in the past have resulted in violence and loss of life in Afghanistan.
Last March, the controversial pastor of a small Florida church burned a copy of the Qur’an, an incident strongly deplored by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others.
Twelve days later, following Friday prayers at a prominent mosque in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and reported claims by imams that hundreds of copies of the Qur’an had been burned in the U.S., protestors stormed a lightly-guarded U.N. compound in an attack that left seven foreign U.N. workers and four Afghan civilians dead.
The violence continued on April 2 and 3, killing at least 12 people in Kandahar, including two Afghan police officers.
In 2005, at least 15 Afghans were killed during a week of rioting after Newsweek reported that a copy of the Qur’an was thrown into a toilet at the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The Pentagon said investigations found no evidence to support the claim, which the magazine retracted.
Islam scholar and activist Robert Spencer said Tuesday that while Allen clearly “should do what he needs to do to protect American lives,” his statement would make matters worse in the long run.
“General Allen clearly has now idea how weak and pusillanimous his repeated apologies in this video will make him appear to many, if not most, of ‘the noble people of Afghanistan,’” Spencer wrote on his Jihad Watch site. “He should know enough about Islamic culture to know that it respects strength and sees apologizing and attempts at conciliation as weakness, only to be despised.”The Taliban was quick to respond to the Bagram incident, issuing a statement saying the “perverted action” had “aroused the sensitivities of one billion Muslims worldwide including the Afghans.”
It also accused the Karzai government of “endorsing” such incidents and said unspecified human rights bodies should “prosecute the criminals who commit such historical offenses.”
President Hamid Karzai’s office in fact condemned the incident, which it said had “degraded” the “holiest values” of Islam.
Meanwhile top U.N. official Jan Kubis met with the head of the country’s Ulema Council, a body of Islamic scholars, “to say that he shared the concerns of the people of Afghanistan regarding this sad mistake that hurts the religious feelings of the people,” the U.N. mission In Kabul said in a statement.
It said Kubis had “expressed his full confidence that ISAF will rapidly conclude the investigation, take appropriate follow-up action as soon as possible and move quickly to hold people behind this incident accountable.”
Muslim scholars teach that the Qur’an, in the original Arabic, is the actual divine revelation given by Allah to Mohammed over a 23-year period and is therefore sacred in itself.
A devout Muslim will never keep a copy at ground level. According to rulings on “Ask the Imam,” a Web site featuring religious experts answering thousands of questions submitted by Muslims around the world, a Muslim who has not undergone ritual washing may not handle a Qur’an, and a menstruating woman may not touch one, or even recite its words without touching it.
Even words from the Qur’an are deemed to be holy. The national flag of Saudi Arabia, which features the Arabic script for the shahada – the Qur’anic declaration, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger” – may never be flown at half-staff.
For the same reason, the inclusion of the Saudi flag in a design on a soccer ball promoting the soccer World Cup in 2010 prompted calls for the balls to be banned.