Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

Riots In Afghanistan Follow Fla. Quran Burning

Afghan protesters hold copies of the Quran as they march during a demonstration to condemn the burning of a copy of the Muslim holy book by a Florida pastor, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Saturday.
Afghan protesters hold copies of the Quran as they march during a demonstration to condemn the burning of a copy of the Muslim holy book by a Florida pastor, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Saturday.

Nine people are dead and scores are wounded in Afghanistan in a second day of riots protesting the burning of a Quran by a Florida preacher.

Hundreds of protesters marched through Kandahar on Saturday, carrying signs and shouting slogans against American and the U.S.-supported Afghan government. Rioters burned cars, damaged buildings and also destroyed a high school for girls.

The riots come just a day after similar demonstrations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where a mob stormed the United Nations office and burned it. Seven international UN staff died there, along with five demonstrators.

Less than 24 hours later in Kabul, a team of four suicide bombers tried to attack a large U.S. military installation. Police said that one of the bombers was arrested and another shot before he could detonate. Two set off their bombs, killing only themselves. Two of the bombers were reportedly wearing burkas, the head-to-toe covering worn by many Afghan women.

The desecration of the Quran by a small Florida church has outraged millions of Muslims and others worldwide. The Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., was thrust into the international spotlight last year when it threatened to destroy a copy of the Muslim holy book. Church pastor Terry Jones backed down then, but last month the church went through with the burning.

The book was burned on March 20, but many Afghans only found out about it when Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the desecration four days later. Protests broke out on Friday in Kabul, and thousands flooded the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province in the north.

Imams in Mazar-i-Sharif condemned the burning and encouraged worshippers to take to the streets. The mob swelled and soon found a conspicuous western target in the nearby UN compound.

It's not clear whether some in the crowd carried weapons, or if they took guns from compound guards after overpowering them. Rioters shot to death four Nepalese UN guards and killed three others inside the building: a Norwegian national, a Swede and a Romanian.

Afghan authorities blame the Taliban for spurring Friday's violence in Mazar-i-Sharif, suspecting insurgents melded into the mob. They announced the arrest of more than 20 people, including a militant they suspect was the ringleader of the assault.

A spokesman for the insurgents, however, said the riots were caused by the anger of the Afghan people.

Four protesters also died in the protest in Mazar-i-Sharif, and demonstrators have alleged that they were killed by Afghan security forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said on Saturday that a delegation of high-ranking Afghan officials was being sent to the city to investigate what happened during the demonstration.

In the past, even rumors of the desecration of a Koran, especially in Europe or America have spurred deadly riots in Afghanistan, causing a more serious reaction than news stories about U.S. soldiers who deliberately killed Afghan civilians. Afghanistan is a deeply religious society with laws against blasphemy or religious conversion that often carry a death sentence.

Wayne Sapp, a pastor at the Dove Outreach Center, called the events "tragic," but said he did not regret the actions of his church.

"I in no way feel like our church is responsible for what happened," Sapp said in a telephone interview on Friday.

The violence in Mazar-i-Sharif is the deadliest attack on the United Nations since 2009, when a team of suicide bombers raided a UN residence in Kabul, killing 11 people. At that time, the United Nations pulled out non-essential staff from Afghanistan. So far, there is no sign the UN will downsize, though all their installations across the country were on security lockdown as violence continued.

NPR's Quil Lawrence contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.