KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Hundreds of angry Afghans burned an American flag and chanted "Death to the Christians" on Thursday to protest plans by a small American church to torch copies of the Muslim holy book on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Local officials in Mahmud Raqi, the capital of the Kapisa province some 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Kabul, estimated that up to 4,000 people took part in the protest. But NATO spokesman James Judge said the protest numbered between 500 to 700 people.
"The Afghan national police prevented the protest from overwhelming an Afghan military outpost," and dispersed the demonstration, he told The Associated Press.
Judge added that the Koran burning is "precisely the kind of activity the Taliban uses to fuel their propaganda efforts to reduce support" for coalition forces.
Abdul Hadi Rostaqi, a cleric council in Afghanistan's largely peaceful Balkh province, also said Thursday that, if the burning goes ahead, "a big protest will be held" in the provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif next Monday. Protesters would hurl stones at NATO-led troops stationed in the city — one of the country's main centers of the Islamic teaching.
Religious and political leaders across the Muslim world, as well as several U.S. officials, have asked the church to call off the plan, warning it would lead to violence against Americans. The Rev. Terry Jones, of the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has vowed to go ahead with the bonfire on Saturday, even though he has been denied the required permit.
About 200 people marched and burned a U.S. flag in the central Pakistani city of Multan.
"If Koran is burned it would be beginning of destruction of America," read one English-language banner held up by the protesters, who chanted "Down with America!"
Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also warned of repercussions, saying the burning would "face reactions by the world's Muslims as well as followers of other religions," according to the official IRNA news agency.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has denounced the planned burning and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said it could lead to attacks on international troops.
There are also fears of a backlash against Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. Canon Andrew White, the chaplain of an Anglican church in Baghdad, said the Iraqi military had warned him that his church had been threatened.
Security was beefed up around the Church of Virgin Mary in central Baghdad on Thursday, with military vehicles blocking the entrance to the church and more soldiers were deployed to guard it.
Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.