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Lebanon Protesters Set Embassy Afire

A protester waves a religious flag in front of the burning building that housed the Danish Embassy in Beirut.
A protester waves a religious flag in front of the burning building that housed the Danish Embassy in Beirut. (Associated Press)

The Danish Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged Danes to leave Lebanon and instructed its citizens not to travel there. The embassy, bracing for the expected protests, had been evacuated Saturday. The building also housed the Austrian Embassy.

"The situation in Beirut is not under control," the Danish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

European and Muslim leaders appealed for calm. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the solution lay "in diplomacy, not in guns," while Lebanon's senior Sunni Muslim cleric warned that violence could portray "a distorted image of Islam."

The protests took on an especially provocative tone in Lebanon, given its large Christian population and the still vivid memories of its 1975-90 civil war. Until last year, Syria's military presence and command of the country's intelligence services made it the power broker in its smaller neighbor. That ended with the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, whose death unleashed mass protests in Beirut that helped force a Syrian withdrawal.

But the unity of those protests has since given way to political uncertainty, the perception of Syrian troublemaking and growing communal tension, particularly between Shiite Muslims -- the country's largest single group, whose leadership has remained pro-Syrian -- and other religious communities. Around the corner from the smoldering Danish Embassy was a faded, torn poster that read: "Lebanese Christian + Lebanese Muslim = Lebanese."

"We're defending our land, our cross and our religion," said a 27-year-old who gave his name as John. He stood with other Christian youths carrying sticks and iron bars in the nearby neighborhood of Jemazye.

One of his friends, Nabil Hazboun, walked toward him. "If they want the return of the militias to Lebanon, we're ready for them to come back," he said.

Down the street, Mahmoud Aitour, a 23-year-old Muslim, took a break from his job at a restaurant and smoked a cigarette.

"These things shouldn't happen, but at the same time, you have to show respect for religion," he said. As he spoke, a firetruck barreled down the street, its sirens blaring. "There has to be respect," he said. "Without respect, you get this."

Text messages circulated on cell phones throughout the day. "Brothers, 200 years of killing of innocent Christians by Muslims and irresponsible Christian leaders," one read. "We say no more!!!! Launch the 'Christian Nation of Lebanon.' It is NEVER going to end unless you prepare your weapons, organize, and claim your Christian independent territory, by force. Or die."

Correspondent Jonathan Finer in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Iraq, contributed to this report.

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