Cartoon Violence Spreads Arson and Death Threats as Muhammad Caricature Controversy Escalates

Protests across the Muslim world refused to die down on Saturday. In Damascus, demonstrators attacked the Danish and Norwegian Embassies while a Hamas leader called for those responsible for the offensive caricatures to be "punished with death."

Emotions across the Muslim world remained raw on Saturday and cartoon-related unrest in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe showed no signs of abating. Indeed, in many places -- spurred on by radical calls by Muslim religious leaders for the West to be punished for the publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a number of newspapers in European countries -- the outrage has turned to violence.

By far the most excessive of the demonstrations on Saturday occurred in Damascus, Syria. Thousands of protestors gathered for a peaceful protest outside the Danish Embassy in the early afternoon, but it quickly escalated. Demonstrators began throwing stones, broke through a police barricade and stormed the embassy. Shortly afterward, they set fire to the building, which also houses the Swedish and Chilean embassies. "With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God," a number of them chanted. Demonstrators replaced the Danish flag with a green flag reading: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God."

The fire was extinguished in about an hour but, by then, many of the demonstrators had moved on to the Norwegian Embassy some six kilometers away. Police used tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to turn the angry mob away, but to no avail. The Norwegian Embassy, too, was set on fire. The protestors then moved off in the direction of the French Embassy before the police could stop them. Nobody was injured in either fire.

The violence and unrest come as Muslims across the globe voice their displeasure at a series of Muhammad caricatures printed originally in the major Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September. Though the initial response was muted, Danish Muslim leaders traveled to the Middle East to drum up outrage against the sleight in December. Papers in a number of European countries, joined by the Dominion Post in New Zealand, printed the cartoons during the week and indignation in the Muslim world overflowed. Islamic tradition prohibits the depiction of Muhammad in images and they see the caricatures as a direct attack on the prophet.
A widespread perception in Islamic countries that European anti-Muslim sentiment is growing is also fuelling their anger.

Statements by a number of radical Muslims leaders across the globe have done little to calm the situation. Mahmoud Zahar a top leader of Hamas, told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that the caricatures of Muhammad were an "unforgivable insult" that should be punished with death. "We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet and instead here we are, protesting peacefully," he said. Hamas recently won landslide parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority.

A radical imam living in Norway, Mullah Krekar, didn't mince words either. "These drawings are a declaration of war," he said. Posters at a demonstration in Britain carried messages like "Butcher those who mock Islam" and "Europe take some lessons from 9/11." BBC television showed the caricatures earlier in the week.

In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on Saturday, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets in protests and stormed a number of European buildings including the German culture center and the European Commission building in Gaza City. They burned Danish and German flags. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called in the envoys of nine Western countries -- France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, Norway and the Czech Republic -- to protest the publishing of the Muhammad cartoons in newspapers in those countries. One day earlier, the Pakistani parliament unanimously passed a resolution condemning the cartoons.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday ordered his commerce minister to examine the feasibility of cancelling all trade contracts with countries whose media had published the caricatures. The caricatures, Ahmadinejad said, show the "impudence and rudeness" of western newspapers. The president of Indonesia and the prime minister of Malaysia both condemned the caricatures on Saturday.

Vatican condemns cartoons

A number of voices in Europe have sought to defuse the situation and have called for calm. In its first official comment on the cartoon jihad, the Vatican spoke of the caricatures as an "unacceptable provocation." The right to freedom of thought and expression, a Vatican statement read, "cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers."

In Munich on Saturday, where a number of world leaders are gathered for the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, European leaders made a plea for dialogue and mutual respect. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed understanding for the offence taken by Muslims. However, she added that, "Freedom of the press is one of the great assets as a component of democracy, but we also have the value and asset of freedom of religion." Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, told the paper Bild am Sonntag: "Tolerance and mutual respect play just as large a role as the principle of freedom of opinion." French President Jacques Chirac said on Friday that Frenchman should exercise "responsibility, respect and measure to avoid all that could injure the convictions of another."

A number of Muslim leaders in Europe have joined the call for calm. Nadeem Elyas, head of Germany's Central Council of Muslims in Germany, expressed outrage over the comics on Friday, but nevertheless called for protests to remain peaceful. In France, a council representing the country's Muslim groups were taking a legal tack and looking into the possibility of suing the paper France Soir, which published the caricatures on Thursday.

Some reasonable voices could also be heard in Gaz Strip. Gunmen associated with the Fatah Party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas passed out carnations at a Catholic school there. They told the Associated Press they were there to apologize for the actions of other Fatah gunmen who had warned that churches would become targets of their protests.

"We came to show that we are united, Muslims and Christians, and that we oppose assaulting our Christian brothers," one of the gunmen said.


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