STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Obama has apologized for the burning of copies of the Quran. The books were burned at a military base in Afghanistan. His apology follows days of demonstrations that have left a number of Afghans and two American soldiers dead.
The thing is, as we're going to hear, that in the Islamic faith it is actually permitted to burn the Quran. It's all in how and why you do it. Turns out that in many religions, not just Islam, there are customs for disposing of sacred texts when they become old or damaged. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The Quran is considered to be the speech of God to humankind, word for word, explains Imam Johari Abdul-Malik.
IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK: The traditional way of disposing of used or damaged copies of the text of the Quran is by burning it.
KEYES: But the director of outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia says that doesn't include burning it with the trash. That's what U.S. officials say mistakenly happened with the Qurans in Afghanistan. The imam, who spent time there in November of 2010, says the troops should have asked for guidance.
ABDUL-MALIK: If one said, well, we're burning some Qurans today, that wouldn't incite riot in Afghanistan. The problem is when one puts the malicious intent as a part of the burning.
KEYES: Imam Malik says the assumption there is that Americans disrespect Muslims. And that's why there would be such a visceral response to burning the Quran, even though a layperson could do so under Muslim law as long as the intent was respectful. The Quran may also be buried. It should be wrapped in something pure and buried in a place where people do not walk.
Many of the religious leaders we spoke to agreed that burial was the most respectful way to dispose of their sacred texts. In the Greek Orthodox Church, Bishop Andonios says either a layperson or a clergyman could put the holy scripture to rest.
BISHOP ANDONIOS: The appropriate way, if it was necessary to dispose of that item, it had become torn or worn or aged, would either be to bury it or to burn it.
KEYES: The bishop, who is chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, says no specific ceremony is involved.
ANDONIOS: In the case of most laypeople, they would bring it to their church and let the parish priest dispose of it.
RABBI MENACHEM GENACK: The Torah is, you know, it's handled with an enormous amount of respect.
KEYES: Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union explains...
GENACK: Generally what's done is sacred texts are buried.
KEYES: Genack is the rabbinic administrator and CEO of the OU Kosher. He explains that shaymos – documents containing the name of God in Hebrew – are treated in a similar manner.
GENACK: You can't just burn them or throw them in the garbage, so what is normally done is either they're buried, as the Torah would be, or they're put away.
KEYES: The evangelical Lutheran church in America doesn't have an official policy for the disposal of Bibles, but Reverend Donald McCoid says...
REVEREND DONALD MCCOID: For some it would be burying, which would be a sacred thing to do, just as you would bury a loved one.
MONSIGNOR KEVIN IRWIN: It should never be not seen to be revered or valued and treasured.
KEYES: Monsignor Kevin Irwin is talking about the Bible. The Catholic University professor says he also prefers disposal by burial.
IRWIN: Because it is so sacred and you don't want it to be perceived to be disgraced by - even by burning.
KEYES: The sense of the sacred is also paramount at the Baha'i National Center in Evanston, Illinois.
THOMAS MURPHY: We feel that Baha'u'llah was a divine figure.
KEYES: Thomas Murphy explains that the Baha'i faith is centered around a figure equal in stature to Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna and his words are to be treated with respect.
MURPHY: There are no ceremonies attached to the treatment of books containing the sacred word.
KEYES: Murphy says the disposal of books containing their sacred texts must be done with a sense of dignity and reverence.
Allison Keyes, NPR News.