Members of an Islamic center in southwest Virginia returned from a prayer meeting Saturday and made a shocking discovery: partially burned copies of the Koran had been left in a shopping bag by the center's front door.
Police in Blacksburg said yesterday that they are investigating the incident and trying to determine whether it was a hate crime. "We are taking it very seriously and are looking at all possibilities," Lt. Joe Davis said.
He said members of the Islamic Center of Blacksburg held a prayer meeting at the center early Saturday and then left. When they returned about 1:30 p.m., they found "three or four" partially burned Korans in a white plastic bag, Davis said.
Davis could not say whether the copies of the Koran belonged to the center or how severely they had been burned. A man who answered the phone at the center yesterday said no one was available to talk about the incident.
The FBI's Roanoke office is assessing the situation, said Kevin Foust, the office's supervisory special agent. "In the meantime," he said, "we have offered any resources we have to the Blacksburg police to assist them in their investigation." Blacksburg is about 35 miles west of Roanoke.
The Koran burning comes at a time of particular sensitivity. The U.S. military recently confirmed five cases of U.S. personnel mishandling the Muslim holy book at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Koran, got copies wet, stood on a copy during an interrogation and inadvertently got urine on another one.
The military's inquiry came after Newsweek magazine reported early last month that U.S. personnel had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay, setting off riots in Muslim nations that left 16 people dead. Newsweek retracted the article, and the military's investigation determined that no such incident had taken place.
Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, said she found the Koran incident in Blacksburg "shocking" and urged police and the FBI to determine whether it was motivated by hate.
"If pages from another holy book were burned and delivered to a place of worship, people would think yes, someone has an agenda," she said. "Pages don't burn themselves and appear in a bag outside a place of worship. Someone willfully did this."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the organization will await the results of the inquiry in Blacksburg before deciding whether the Koran burning was a hate crime.
"It's hard to see a scenario where it would not be bias-related," Hooper said, "but it is subject to interpretation. You can read into it what they were trying to say, but without an explicit anti-Muslim message, we have to really wait and see what the investigation turns up."
Last month, the council released a report showing a striking increase nationally in reports of suspected hate crimes against Muslims -- 141 last year compared with 93 in 2003. Overall, the organization said, U.S. Muslims had reported about 1,500 cases of hate crimes, unreasonable arrest, harassment and other alleged civil rights violations last year, a 50 percent increase from the previous year.
Yesterday, in response to the Blacksburg incident, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement calling on Americans of all faiths to obtain and read the Koran.