Sympathy, anger over U.S. policies preached at mosques

JERUSALEM -- The mosque preacher began by denouncing attacks against innocents, and every one of the listening worshippers knew he was speaking of the thousands who died in fiery terror strikes on the distant shores of America. To wantonly kill like this, he declared, was an abomination. A coward's cry.

But by the time the imam wound up his sermon to thousands of Muslim faithful at a West Bank mosque, familiar and long-held grievances -- most particularly, the plight of the Palestinians -- were at the forefront.

"America's terrorism is greater than any terrorism in the world," Sheik Hamed Betawi thundered to an overflow crowd at the old stone mosque in Nablus. "The U.S. administration is criminal -- injustice always leads to injustice."

Muslim prayers

In mosques across the Middle East on Friday, the most important prayer day of the Muslim week, a wounded America received a measure of sympathy for the catastrophic suicide attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Away from the crush of fellow worshippers, some expressed quiet sorrow over the carnage.

But the day's sermons -- traditionally an important indicator of national sentiments -- also offered a passionate reminder of the hatreds and hardships that fuel the region's conflicts.

At Friday's prayers across the region, perhaps the most strident rhetoric came in Iraq, which has been locked in years of confrontation with successive American administrations. Iraq blames America for the deaths of thousands of civilians due to malnutrition and disease under United Nations sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's soldiers occupied Kuwait in 1990.

At an neighborhood mosque in Baghdad, al-Shawi, worshippers listened as the imam called the attacks "heavenly punishment" for American wrongs. A nationally televised sermon from Baghdad's Al-Azam mosque urged that no tears be shed for "tyrants whose hands are stained with the blood of our people."

At Egypt's oldest and most venerable Islamic institution, the attacks were criticized, though in indirect terms.

"He who kills a person without necessity ... will never go to heaven," Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi told worshippers at Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque. "It's not courage in any way to kill an innocent person, or to kill thousands of people, including men and women and children."

In some quarters, America's misfortunes went unremarked upon. At the Al-Ansar mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, where supporters of the militant movement Hamas were heavily represented among worshippers, the sermon did not mention Tuesday's attacks.

Iranian sympathy

In Iran, where reformists have been trying to forge ties with the West over the objections of conservative mullahs, denunciation of Israel went on as usual at Friday prayers -- but not of the United States.

At prayer services at a former sports stadium at Tehran University, the crowd refrained this week from its customary chants of "Death to America." The preacher, Ayatollah Mohammad Kashani, told about 10,000 worshippers the attacks in America were "tragic ... very worrying."

Later, in an extraordinary gesture, a moment of silence in honor of victims of the terror attacks was observed at a Tehran stadium before a World Cup qualifying match between Bahrain and Iran.