The Afghan government quietly dumped more than 1,000 Shiite texts and other books from Iran into a river after a local governor complained that their content insulted the country's Sunni majority.
The move appeared to be an attempt by President Hamid Karzai's U.S.-backed government to smooth over a potential thorn in relations between the Muslim sects. But instead of burying the issue along with the books at the bottom of the Helmand River, the government was facing condemnation Wednesday from Shiite leaders after news leaked a month after the dumping.
"It is a humiliation for all Shiites," said Mohammad Akbari, a prominent Shiite member of parliament. He said a joint commission of Sunni and Shiite leaders should have reviewed any complaints about the books.
Merchants who had ordered the books for shops in Kabul said there was nothing offensive about their content and that they were destroyed simply because of prejudice against Shiites, who make up about 20 percent of the population.
The dispute highlights the continuing tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Afghanistan despite efforts by the government to preach tolerance across the sectarian divide.
Shiites were persecuted under the largely Sunni Taliban regime that ruled the country until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, the two sects have settled into an uneasy coexistence, with the post-Taliban constitution giving Shiites the right to create some laws that apply only to them.
The latest episode started six months ago when a container full of books arrived in western Nimroz province from neighboring Iran, said the governor's spokesman, Haaji Nazir.
Nestled among boxes of computer and English instruction manuals were more than 1,000 history and religious books promoting Shiite Islam, Nazir said. Iran is a mostly Shiite country.
"Books like these are more dangerous than Taliban bullets," Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad said.
But the Kabul booksellers who ordered the books said ethnic prejudice motivated the governor, a Sunni from the country's dominant Pashtun ethnic group. Many Afghan Shiites are ethnic Hazaras.
"He has no respect for the Hazara people," said Mohammad Ibrahim Sharyati, who said he lost about 2,600 books worth about $40,000.
After seizing the books, authorities in the western province held them at a customs warehouse and sent samples to the Information and Culture Ministry in the capital for a ruling. A commission found that at least some of the books were "dangerous to the unity of Afghanistan" because they contained interpretations of religion that are offensive to Sunnis, said Deputy Culture Ministry Aleem Tanwir.
"They included incorrect statements about the advice of Prophet Muhammad, and this is very dangerous for our Sunni community," Tanwir said.
"We contacted the governor of Nimroz and we told him that he cannot allow these books in Afghanistan," Tanwir said, adding that the books carried propaganda from Iran.
He said the ministry agreed to the idea of dumping the books in the river along the Iranian border as an alternative to burning, because it is against Islam to burn a book that contains the name of the prophet.
About 2,600 history, geography and cultural books were destroyed, along with about 600 Shiite religious books, according to Sharyati and Ahmadi, a bookseller who had ordered the Shiite texts. Ahmadi declined to give his full name out of fear of government reprisal.
Both booksellers say they previously had ordered these books from Iran without any problem. Many of the books in question can be found for sale at shops in Kabul. Sharyati said he orders the books from Iran because paper and printing are cheaper there.
The government's clumsy attempt to prevent controversy by dumping the books is reminiscent of its approach to a contentious Shiite family law passed about two months ago without going through the usual parliamentary debate.
Many Sunni lawmakers said at the time that they passed the law without reading it because they felt they had no right to rule on Shiite matters and that debate would only cause conflict.
When it later emerged that the bill placed heavy restrictions on women's freedom, Karzai put the law on hold and promised a revision of the legislation.