KABUL, Afghanistan -- Hundreds of Afghans railed against the United States and called for President Barack Obama's death at a rally in the capital Monday to denounce an American church's plan to burn the Islamic holy book on Sept. 11.
The crowd in Kabul, numbering as many as 500, chanted "Long live Islam" and "Death to America" as they listened to fiery speeches from members of parliament, provincial council deputies, and Islamic clerics who criticized the U.S. and demanded the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. Some threw rocks when a U.S. military convoy passed, but speakers shouted at them to stop and told police to arrest anyone who disobeyed.
The Gainesville, Florida-based Dove World Outreach Center announced plans to burn copies of the Koran on church grounds to mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but has been denied a permit to set a bonfire. The church, which made headlines last year after distributing T-shirts that said "Islam is of the Devil," has vowed to proceed with the burning.
"We know this is not just the decision of a church. It is the decision of the president and the entire United States," said Abdul Shakoor, an 18-year-old high school student who said he joined the protest after hearing neighborhood gossip about the Koran burning.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement condemning Dove World Outreach Center's plans, saying Washington was "deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups."
Protesters who had gathered in front of Kabul's Milad ul-Nabi mosque raised placards and flags emblazoned with slogans calling for the death of Obama, while police looked on. They burned American flags and a cardboard effigy of Dove World Outreach Center's pastor, Terry Jones, before dispersing peacefully.
Muslims consider the Koran to be the word of God and demand it, along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Mohammad, be treated with the utmost respect. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect to the Koran is considered deeply offensive.
In 2005, 15 people died and scores were wounded in riots in Afghanistan sparked by a story in Newsweek magazine alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay placed copies of the Koran in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk. Newsweek later retracted the story.
Police, meanwhile, said Monday they were investigating the stabbing death of well-known Afghan journalist Sayed Hamid Noori outside his Kabul home Sunday night.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement ordering authorities to spare no effort in bringing his killers to justice. Noori had been a former state television news anchor, as well as a member of Afghanistan's Association of Independent Journalists.
Reporters in Afghanistan face pressure from the government, local politicians and Taliban insurgents, all of whom look askance at negative reporting. At least 20 Afghan journalists have been killed and 200 physically assaulted in the past decade, with scores more leaving the profession or fleeing the country amid threats to their safety.
Also Monday, NATO said an American service member was killed in fighting in the country's turbulent east on Sunday.
No other details were given in accordance with standard procedure. The death was the fifth among U.S. troops in Afghanistan in September, following the deaths of more than 220 American troops over the past three months.
This year is already the bloodiest for American forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, with at least 321 killed so far.
Violence is increasing with the infusion of 30,000 additional U.S. troops that brings the total number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to more than 140,000. Stepped-up operations ahead of next week's parliamentary elections and an ongoing campaign to drive the Taliban from its southern strongholds are also boosting the numbers of dead and wounded.