STERLING, Va. - A senior Pentagon official apologized Friday to Washington-area Muslims for the burning of Korans at a military base in Afghanistan.
Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, said the military is investigating what occurred and that all 140,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan are being retrained in the handling of religious materials.
Lavoy apologized multiple times during a brief speech during prayer services at the ADAMS Center in Sterling, one of the largest mosques in the country.
"I come here today to apologize on behalf of the Department of Defense for the incident that took place in Afghanistan this week," Lavoy told worshippers, saying the burnings were done "unknowingly and improperly."
Lavoy's remarks at the suburban Washington mosque follow protests across Afghanistan over the burning of several Korans at a U.S. military base. Military officials say at least 20 people have died in the protests, including two U.S. soldiers.
President Barack Obama has apologized for the burning, which authorities say was a mistake, and Gen. John Allen apologized in Afghanistan earlier this week. But the protests continue.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Lavoy's appearance was part of a broad effort by the administration to defuse the controversy.
"This is an issue we know is of concern, not only to Afghans, but to other Muslims around the world, including in the United States," Little said. "We want to send a strong signal to the American Muslim community that we deplore what happened and apologize for it."
Imam Mohamed Magid, executive director of the ADAMS Center mosque and president of the Islamic Society of North America, said Friday's session was designed to let Muslims around the world know that American Muslims were also concerned about the incident but were able to express those concerns and receive an apology and promise of a thorough investigation without resorting to violence.
"It was very satisfying, very heartwarming to hear an apology three times in one speech," Magid said after the services.
Magid said Muslims across the world are rightfully concerned and upset to hear that Korans were burned in a careless manner. But he said that "absolutely the violence we have seen is unacceptable from an Islamic perspective."
Magid said the Pentagon reached out to him and other Muslim leaders earlier this week, and he went to the Pentagon on Thursday to meet with officials, who offered to come to his mosque and speak directly to its members.
"As American Muslims we engage with our government and we hold them accountable if something goes wrong," Magid told nearly 1,000 worshippers during midday services.
Lavoy did not take questions from worshippers or reporters after Friday's speech.
Not everyone who heard Lavoy's speech was satisfied. Mauri Saalakhan of Silver Spring, Md., who operates the Peace Thru Justice Foundation and came to ADAMS Center to hear Lavoy's remarks, said that an apology is helpful but insufficient. He said he simply does not believe that the Korans were mistakenly burned and that the burnings of the Koran are relatively minor compared to the suffering that has been inflicted on the Afghan people as a result of the war.
"The sacrilege against human beings in the so-called war on terror is far more egregious," Saalakhan said.