BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims transformed a religious ceremony in Lebanon on Thursday into an emotional but peaceful protest against cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.
“Today, we are defending the dignity of our prophet with a word, a demonstration but let (U.S. President) George Bush and the arrogant world know that if we have to … we will defend our prophet with our blood, not our voices,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, told the crowd.
Angry Muslims have demonstrated around the world over the cartoons, first published in Denmark, then Norway and several other countries in Europe and elsewhere.
The caricatures, including one showing the Prophet Mohammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, have unleashed fury among many Muslims who consider any portrayal of their prophet as blasphemous, let alone one showing him as a terrorist.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has accused Iran and Syria, both backers of Hezbollah and at loggerheads with the West, of deliberately stoking rage among Muslims.
President George W. Bush urged governments to stop the violence, including attacks on Western diplomatic missions in parts of the Muslim world.
“Defending the Prophet should continue worldwide, let Condoleezza Rice, Bush and all the tyrants shut up: We are a nation that can’t forgive, be silent or ease up when they insult our prophet and our sacred values,” Nassrallah said.
He said there would be no compromise before a Danish apology and the European Parliament and individual assemblies in Europe pass a media law that prohibits insulting the Prophet Mohammad.
Unlike a protest on Sunday that turned into a riot in which the building housing the Danish consulate was torched, there were no signs of violence in the march in Beirut’s southern suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold.
“At your service, oh Mohammad, at your service, oh Prophet of God,” the crowds chanted with fists raised. “Death to America, Death to Israel,” they also shouted.
“No dignity to a nation whose prophet is insulted,” a placard read; “What comes after insulting sacred values?” another asked.
Despite wind and rain, there was a high turnout — put by security sources at 400,000, and by Hezbollah at 700,000. The march is an annual event to mark Ashura when Shi’ites mourn the death of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein, killed in Kerbala in Iraq 1,300 ago.
Protesters burnt the Danish and Norwegian missions in Damascus on Saturday. A day later, demonstrators torched the Danish consulate in Beirut.
Lebanon has charged 203 people, mostly Lebanese but also Syrians and Palestinians, with taking part in the riots and promised swift trials.
Ashura is the 10th day of the lunar month of Muharram, when Imam Hussein was killed in AD 680 in a battle with the army of Caliph Yazid. He was decapitated and his head taken to Damascus, the seat of Yazid’s Sunni Ummayad dynasty.