KABUL, Afghanistan – Firebrand Muslim clerics in Pakistan lashed out at the United States on Friday over alleged desecration of Islam's holy book at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay (search), but few people showed up for protests.
The rallies, which were peaceful, followed days of protests and riots in neighboring Afghanistan that have claimed at least seven lives.
A hardline opposition Islamic coalition, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (search), or MMA, had appealed for Muslims to protest in major cities after Friday prayers, but in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Multan and Karachi no more than a few hundred turned out.
"By insulting the Quran, they have challenged our belief. We are hurt ... If we don't rise against Americans, if we don't give them a strong message today, they will do it again," cleric Hafiz Hussain Ahmad, an MMA leader, told worshippers at a mosque in the Pakistani capital.
He also urged people to prepare themselves for a jihad, or holy war, and branded Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) a "dog" — considered a serious slur in Islamic culture — for his alliance with Washington in the war on terrorism.
Also Friday, Pakistan's parliament unanimously passed a resolution, condemning the reported insult of Quran at the U.S. detention facility, and urging Washington to thoroughly probe the incident.
Clerics in other cities also strongly criticized the U.S. government in their sermons at Friday prayers. Pakistani government and opposition lawmakers weighed in with more criticism in Parliament — but the fiery rhetoric stirred little public interest.
Unrest began in Afghanistan on Tuesday after Newsweek magazine reported in its May 9 edition that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, placed Qurans in washrooms to unsettle suspects, and in one case "flushed a holy book down the toilet."
Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the U.S.-led war against terror in Afghanistan. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, insults to the Quran and Islam's prophet, Muhammad, are regarded as blasphemy and punishable by death.
"We think President George (W.) Bush has started a crusade war by insulting Quran," hardline cleric Anwar ul-Haq told a congregation at the main mosque in the southwestern Pakistan city of Quetta. He warned that people would be forced to take "extreme steps against American citizens in the world" if any Guantanamo Bay-like incident was repeated in future.
But Sadique Bajrani, a cleric at a mosque in southern city of Karachi, while condemning abuse of the Quran, urged people to remain peaceful. "Americans did a bad thing, but you should not hurt anyone while protesting against America," he said.
Pakistan had stepped up security ahead of the rallies, and the United Nations closed its offices across Pakistan early as a precaution. There were no reports of violence.
In Washington on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said disrespect for the Quran would never be tolerated in the United States and that military authorities were investigating the allegations.
"Respect for religious freedom for all individuals is one of the founding principles of the United States," Rice said.
During a visit to Australia, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri called the alleged slur on Islam's holy book "debased, inhuman (and) depraved," and said the Bush administration should take "very strong action" to investigate the incident and punish those responsible.
Meanwhile, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group, claimed the alleged desecration was "a link in the series of aggressions on the Islamic sanctities."
"The Muslim Brotherhood warns the U.S. administration against the anger of the people ... the repercussions will be grave," leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said in a statement.