Leaders Appeal for Calm in Muslim Cartoon Protests

Published February 04, 2006

| Associated Press

Rage against caricatures of Islam's revered prophet poured out across the Muslim world Saturday, with aggrieved believers calling for executions, storming European buildings and setting European flags afire.

Hundreds of Syrian demonstrators have stormed the Danish Embassy in Damascus, and they've set fire to the building.

The building that's been set on fire in the Syrian capital also houses the embassies of Chile and Sweden.

Protesters have been staging sit-ins outside the embassy almost daily since the uproar over the drawings broke out last week.

Witnesses say today's protest started peacefully, but that as anger escalated, protesters broke through police barriers and torched the building.

In Gaza City, demonstrators hurled stones at a European Commission building and stormed a German cultural center, smashing windows and doors. Protesters also burned German and Danish flags and called for a boycott of Danish products.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, about 50 Palestinians marched to the headquarters of the international observer mission there, burned a Danish flag and demanded a boycott of Danish goods.

"We will redeem our prophet, Muhammad, with our blood!" they chanted.

The cartoons, first printed in a Danish newspaper in September and then republished in European publications this week, have touched a raw nerve in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Aggravating the affront was a caricature of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, among other provocative images.

Muslims in Europe have reacted less passionately than their counterparts in the Mideast and Southeast Asia, but anger swelled there, too, on Saturday, with demonstrators clashing with police in Copenhagen and gathering outside the Danish Embassy in London.

The Vatican deplored the violence but said certain forms of criticism represented an "unacceptable provocation."

"The right to freedom of thought and expression ... cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in its first statement on the controversy.

In Munich, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she understood Muslims' hurt, but she denounced violent reactions.

"I can understand that religious feelings of Muslims have been injured and violated," Merkel said at an international security conference. "But I also have to make clear that I feel it is unacceptable to see this as legitimizing the use of violence."

Hundreds of Palestinians protested in the occupied territories, and the leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which recently swept parliamentary elections there, told Italian daily Il Giornale on Saturday that the cartoons should be punished by death.

"We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet and instead here we are, protesting peacefully," said a top group leader, Mahmoud Zahar.

Masked gunmen affiliated with the Fatah Party called on the Palestinian Authority and Muslim nations to recall their diplomatic missions from Denmark until that nation's government apologizes.

The Danish government has tried to contain the damage. Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller has called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said the Danish government "cannot accept an assault against Islam," according to Abbas' office.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said his government could not apologize on behalf of a newspaper, but he personally would never depict religious figures "in a way that could offend other people."

Many Muslims consider the Danish government's reaction inadequate.

At least 500 Israeli Arabs gathered peacefully in Nazareth for the first protest against the caricatures on Israeli soil.

In Malaysia, prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the publication of the cartoons showed a "blatant disregard for Islamic sensitivities" but urged citizens to stay calm.

"Let the perpetrators of the insult see the gravity of their own mistakes which only they themselves can and should correct," he said.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono denounced the cartoons as insensitive.

About 500 people rallied Saturday south of Baghdad, Iraq, some carrying banners urging "honest people all over the world to condemn this act" and demanding an EU apology. The protest was organized by followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been among the most outspoken Iraqi clerics on the issue.

Angry demonstrators rallied in Denmark and Britain on Saturday, signaling a ratcheting up of tensions among European Muslims.

Although many of Denmark's 200,000 Muslims were deeply offended by the cartoons, mass demonstrations have not broken out.

But in Copenhagen, young Muslims clashed briefly with police after they were stopped from boarding a train to go to a demonstration north of the Danish capital. Some of the roughly 300 demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at police but no one was injured, officials said.

In London, several hundred demonstrators gathered under heavy police security outside Denmark's embassy, shouting slogans to protest the publication of the drawings.

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