The State Department said Wednesday the alleged desecration of a Koran at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center is "repugnant" to U.S. values and under investigation. But it also insists the religious rights of Muslim inmates at the facility are being scrupulously protected.
Administration officials are stressing their abhorrence of the alleged abuse of the Muslim holy book, but also say that such an incident, if it occurred, was at complete variance with strict rules at Guantanamo aimed at protecting Muslim religious practice and sensitivities.
The report carried by the U.S. magazine Newsweek that a Koran was desecrated by jailers at Guantanamo to try to unnerve Muslim inmates has triggered anti-American protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including violent unrest Wednesday the Afghan city of Jalalabad.
The Pentagon, which administers the detention facility, says it is investigating the matter and determined to punish anyone found to have been involved in such conduct.
For a second straight day, the State Department stressed its abhorrence of the alleged misconduct.
At a briefing, department spokesman Richard Boucher said the matter is being taken "very, very seriously" and that abuse of religious objects and texts runs counter not only to American traditions but standing policies at Guantanamo.
"The entire national history of the United States is bound together by a fundamental respect for religious freedom. And we carry out those principles with regard to the prisoners at Guantanamo," he said. "Desecration of religious texts and objects is repugnant to common values and is an anathema to the American people. The allegation is contrary to our respect for cultural customs and the fundamental belief in the freedom of religion that we do practice at Guantanamo Bay with regard to prisoners of the Muslim religion."
Mr. Boucher said U.S. personnel at the detention center undergo cultural training to ensure they understand procedures for protecting the rights and dignity of detainees.
He said those held there receive not only adequate shelter and clothing but meals appropriate to their religious beliefs.
He further said there is ample opportunity for Muslim worship with Korans and other relevant materials provided, and that among other things calls to prayer are played over camp loudspeakers at the appropriate times every day.
The State Department acknowledged earlier that the Pakistani government had expressed "serious concern" about the allegations to senior officials at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.
Spokesman Boucher said U.S. officials had also discussed the matter with Afghan officials, and would be in touch with governments of other Muslim countries as necessary to make U.S. policy on the issue clear.
The detention facility at the U.S. naval base in Cuba was opened in 2002 as the central holding point for prisoners in the U.S. global war on terrorism.
It holds about 520 prisoners, many of them al-Qaida and Taleban suspects of various nationalities detained in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
More than 200 of the original detainees have either been sent home and released, or transferred to the custody of their countries of origin.
Procedures for reviewing the cases of those still held have been established, but spokesman Boucher indicated there will be no early move to close the controversial facility.
He said many of those detained were picked up on the field of battle fighting coalition forces or were members of terrorist organizations. He said no one wants to see them released and to return to efforts to kill U.S. and coalition forces or innocent Afghans and Iraqis.