Cartoons Spark Burning of Embassies

Syrians in Damascus burn a Danish flag in continuing protests against European newspapers for publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Muslim protests spread to Pakistan and the West Bank.
Syrians in Damascus burn a Danish flag in continuing protests against European newspapers for publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Muslim protests spread to Pakistan and the West Bank. (By Khaled Al-hariri -- Reuters)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 5, 2006

ISTANBUL, Feb. 4 -- Outrage among Muslims around the world over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad again erupted into violence on Saturday, as crowds in Damascus, Syria, set afire the embassies of two countries where newspapers published the images forbidden by Islam.

The embassies of Denmark and Norway were badly damaged by demonstrators shouting "God is Great!" as police fired tear gas and water cannons, news reports said. In the Palestinian territories, protesters burned tires and threw rocks at offices of the European Union, and a leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, was quoted as calling for the death of those responsible for the caricatures.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church added its voice to Western governments condemning publication of the images. "The right to freedom of thought and expression . . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in a statement.

The controversy showed no signs of abating as newspapers reprinted the cartoons, triggering fresh protests. In the West, each new incident fueled curiosity about the provocative images in question -- a series of 12 cartoons that a Danish newspaper commissioned in September to directly challenge Islam's ban on depicting the prophet. The cartoons not only pictured Muhammad, who Muslims believe carried the word of God from a mountaintop 1,500 years ago; several also lampooned him, with one artist rendering his turban as a bomb.

After Muslims began protesting this past week, newspapers in Germany, France and Norway reprinted the cartoons, calling the issue a matter of free expression. But the Bush administration and other Western governments declared that publication served no purpose except offending the world's 1.1 billion Muslims, many of whom already feel aggrieved. Global surveys taken before the cartoon controversy showed that Muslims overwhelmingly believe the U.S.-led war on terror is in fact a war on Islam.

"It's interesting how our ambassadors in Europe see this issue so differently than ambassadors in Islamic countries," said a European diplomat in Turkey, where reaction to the cartoon flap has been relatively muted. "Those in Europe see it as a free speech issue," he said, while diplomats in Muslim countries are agitated.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to share confidential diplomatic traffic. The diplomat quoted a cable from his country's Cairo embassy that read: "I can't de-escalate. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not something I can sell here if it is in conflict with Islam."

In the United States, major newspapers, including The Washington Post, chose not to reprint the images on grounds they would give offense. In South Africa, the high court barred Sunday papers from reprinting them. CNN International reported that two newspapers in New Zealand did publish the images, but the channel blurred footage of the papers.

"We should have killed all those who offend the prophet and instead here we are, protesting peacefully," Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was quoted as telling the Italian daily Il Giornale on Saturday, according to the Associated Press. Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority parliament in elections last month.

The Reuters news agency reported the government of Iran had appointed a committee to explore bans on trade with countries where the cartoons had been published. Last year Iran quietly imposed a similar ban on at least one country, South Korea, that had voted against it at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In Damascus, peaceful protests at the Danish and Norwegian embassies grew violent after demonstrators broke through police lines. Both buildings were empty at the time they were overrun. Denmark warned its citizens to avoid the country.

"The situation for Danes in Syria has developed negatively in the past hours," a Foreign Ministry statement said. Norway also warned its citizens away. That country previously pulled aid workers and diplomats out of the West Bank after protests.

Demonstrations were also reported in Pakistan, Britain, Iraq and Bethlehem in the West Bank. In the West Bank town of Hebron, about 50 Palestinians burned a Danish flag and demanded a boycott of Danish goods, chanting "We will redeem our prophet, Muhammad, with our blood!" they chanted, the AP reported.

There were scattered counter-demonstrations, such as one outside Copenhagen where about 50 right-wing protesters held Danish flags and shouted, "Denmark for Danes!" the AP reported. Italy's ANSA news agency reported that about 50 supporters of the right-wing Northern League offered Danish beer and biscuits to passersby in Milan.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company