By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 6, 2006
BEIRUT, Feb. 5 -- Thousands of Muslim protesters, enraged over the publication of caricatures of Islam's prophet Muhammad, set ablaze the Danish Embassy on Sunday and rampaged through a predominantly Christian neighborhood, escalating sectarian tensions in a country whose melange of faiths can sometimes serve as a microcosm of the world's religious divide.
The unrest, which involved as many as 20,000 protesters, was some of the worst in Lebanon in years, and leaders from across the political and religious spectrums appealed for calm. In vain, some Muslim clerics tried to step into the hours-long fray to end the clashes, which news agencies said left at least one demonstrator dead and 30 wounded.
But in the streets, fistfights broke out between Christian and Muslim Lebanese after protesters threw rocks at a Maronite Catholic Church, broke windows at the Lebanese Red Cross office and shattered windshields of cars. Bands of Christian youths congregated with sticks and iron bars, promising to defend their neighborhoods.
"Those who are committing these acts have nothing to do with Islam or with Lebanon," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told Lebanon's Future Television before the protests ended. "This is absolutely not the way we express our opinions."
The unrest in Lebanon, mired in its own political uncertainty, was the latest turn in a controversy that has spread worldwide following the publication of the cartoons in Denmark and other Western countries and showed no signs of ebbing Sunday. Demonstrators took to the streets in Afghanistan, Iraq, the West Bank and New Zealand. A day earlier, protesters burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria after charging past security barriers.
The Islamic Army in Iraq, a Sunni Arab insurgent group, issued an Internet statement calling for attacks on Danish companies and nationals. The group urged followers to "catch some Danish people and cut them into pieces." There are about 500 Danish soldiers in Iraq.
In their scope and vitriol, the protests say much about the state of relations between the West and the Muslim world in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. The anger was ignited by 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that were commissioned in September by a Danish newspaper to challenge Islam's ban on depicting the prophet. Along with picturing him, some lampooned him. After protests began, other European papers reprinted the cartoons.
They declared it an issue of freedom of expression, a cornerstone of democratic values; many Muslims cast it as another insult in a growing conflict that is most often reflected here through the lens of a religious struggle with an American-led West.
"What are you going to do?" asked a leaflet circulated in Beirut that called for Sunday's protest.
"Bush and his group have invaded and are fighting war by all means available," it added. "The goal: destroying the Islamic nation ideologically, economically and existentially, and stealing and looting its resources."
The protests in Lebanon came in response to calls issued in mosques Friday and in similar leaflets circulated in Beirut and other cities. Most stayed peaceful. But bands broke through police lines at the Danish Embassy, and hundreds of other protesters surged through nearby streets, waving green religious flags and shouting, "God is greatest." Police shot into the air and fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, who threw stones, set ablaze firetrucks and overturned police vehicles. More than 150 were arrested, according to news service reports.
The Danish Embassy was gutted and its granite facade scorched. Acrid black smoke spilled out of its windows hours later, as firefighters tried to contain the blaze. Workers swept up glass that littered the streets of the neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh.
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.