Friday prayers bring new wave of protests on prophet drawings

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Arab governments, Muslim clerics and newspaper columnists have been urging calm.

CAIRO, Egypt -- Thousands of worshippers emerging from Friday prayers demonstrated against drawings of the Prophet Muhammad in the Mideast, Asia and Africa, clashing with police in some cities despite religious leaders' attempts to keep marches peaceful.

In Kenya, police shot and wounded one person among about 200 demonstrators trying to march to the residence of Denmark's ambassador.

About 60 protesters in the Iranian capital, Tehran, threw firebombs at the French Embassy, shattering nearly every window on its street facade, even after a cleric at a prominent Iranian mosque urged people not to attack diplomatic missions.

"Down! Down with France! Down! Down with Israel," the crowd chanted. One firebomb exploded in the embassy and started a small blaze that was quickly extinguished.

Asia saw its biggest demonstrations yet, and most there -- like across much of the world -- were peaceful. But sporadic violence demonstrated the difficulty Islamic leaders face in managing what Muslims see as righteous anger over satirical drawings of their most revered figure.

The caricatures, one of which showed Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban, were published first in a Danish paper in September, then reprinted in European papers in recent weeks in the name of press freedom.

Arab governments, Muslim clerics and newspaper columnists have been urging calm, fearing that recent weeks of violence have only increased anti-Islamic sentiment in the West. They've asked demonstrators not to attack embassies and to avoid flag burning and insulting slogans.

Eleven people have been killed in the protests, all of them during three days of riots this week in Afghanistan. A 12th person died Friday in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, when he was hit by an ambulance rushing away the wounded protester.

Protests appeared to ease in the Mideast in recent days, with no major rallies Thursday, though the caricatures were brought up in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq as Shiite Muslims marked their holy day of Ashoura.

But Friday prayers -- a frequent launching ground for political demonstrations -- brought a new wave of protests in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Morocco. No significant marches were seen in Syria or Lebanon, the scene of attacks on embassies in past weeks.

Order kept in Jordan

In Jordan, organizers and clerics were able to keep order.

Around 2,000 followers of the Muslim Brotherhood marched peacefully through the capital Amman, after cleric Abdul-Rahman Ibdah told them in his sermon not to "imitate the rioters in other countries [who] harmed Islam."

Egypt saw its most widespread protests yet, with thousands protesting in 21 of its 26 provinces, including in Cairo and the second-largest city, Alexandria.

Many were organized by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which has called for marches to continue -- but peacefully. The group's deputy head, Khairat el-Shater, appealed to Muslims beforehand "not to let their furor drag them into attacking properties ... or to turn into a clash between civilizations."

But violence erupted when police tried to stop demonstrations.

In the northern Delta city of Mahalla el-Kubra, where some 15,000 people marched, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon when demonstrators refused to disperse. Protesters pelted them with rocks and attacked shops and cars. At least 20 people were arrested.

About 1,000 people protested outside Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, some chanting, "Osama bin Laden, explode Copenhagen," and burning a Danish flag. Some threw shoes at police trying to bar their way, and security forces beat protesters with sticks.

Afterward, Brotherhood official Mohammed Bishr said the violence and flag burnings were caused by "intruders who infiltrated the peaceful demonstrations."

Protests by Palestinians were smaller than in recent days, but vehement. Gunmen fired in the air as thousands marched in Gaza, while about 2,000 women, young boys and older men marched around the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem, chanting "Bin Laden, strike again" and burning a Danish flag.

In Pakistan, rallies erupted around the country after prayers with some protesters burning foreign-made cheese and breaking windows while others clashed with police.

About 2,000 protesters briefly clashed with police in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The crowd attacked shops before they were charged by police.

Thousands also demonstrated in Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, while smaller rallies were held in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Many Muslims considered the caricatures offensive to Islam, which is interpreted to bar images of the prophet. The Danish newspaper that first published the drawings has apologized for causing Muslims any offense but the Danish government has said it cannot apologize for something done by its free press.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi talked of a "huge chasm that has emerged between the West and Islam," particularly because of Muslim frustrations at Western policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinians.

A U.S. official praised Indonesia and Malaysia for their handling of the controversy, saying the countries proved that Islam and democracy were compatible.

"The protests dissipated fairly quickly and there was a public discussion of it," said Eric John, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

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