KABUL, (Reuters) – Senior Afghan clerics said on Friday the burning of Korans at a NATO base last month was an “evil act” that must be punished, a demand that could deepen widespread public anger over the incident.
“The council strongly condemns this crime and inhumane, savage act by American troops by desecrating holy Korans,” members of a council of clerics said after meeting President Hamid Karzai, according to a statement issued by his office.
“The council emphasized that the apology for this evil act can never be accepted. Those who committed this crime must be publicly tried and punished.”
Despite the apology from U.S. President Barack Obama, the desecration of the Korans at Bagram air base ignited a wave of anti-Western fury across the country. Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence.
At least 30 people were killed in the protests.
The Korans had been confiscated from prisoners at the base and mistakenly discarded in an incinerator, U.S. officials said. Afghan laborers found charred remnants.
The Koran burnings have hurt a U.S. campaign to win the hearts and minds of Afghans in order to weaken the Taliban and force the Muslim militant group to negotiate an end to the war now in its eleventh year.
A string of attacks on NATO troops by Afghan security forces followed the burnings.
The killing of two U.S. officers, allegedly by a police intelligence officer, in the heart of the heavily guarded Interior Ministry raised particular concern and cast fresh doubt over the effectiveness of Afghan security forces.
If their capabilities do not improve before foreign combat troops head home at the end of 2014, the country could face prolonged instability.
Bagram was a source of friction between the United States Karzai’s government long before the Korans were burned.
An Afghan government commission investigating abuse accusations at the largest U.S. jail in Afghanistan which is there, has said inmates had reported being tortured and being held without evidence.
Control over Afghans captured by U.S. forces is a major stumbling block in negotiations between Kabul and Washington on a strategic partnership agreement. NATO’s night-time raids on Afghan homes, which Karzai objects to, are another point of contention.
The agreement would define the terms of any U.S. military presence after the end of 2014.
The senior clerics said the Koran burnings took place at Bagram because the administration of the prison at the facility, where the holy books had been located, did not treat religious material with respect.
“We strongly demand the closure of prisons run by foreigners,” the clerics told Karzai during the meeting, his office said.