LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) – More than 20,000 supporters of a radical Islamic group held a peaceful rally against the publication of Prophet Muhammad cartoons Friday in an eastern Pakistan city and accused the government of being “soft” on the West over the controversy.
“The government should have taken a hard stance against those countries where these cartoons were published to insult our beloved Prophet Muhammad,” Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the leader of Jamaat al-Dawat group, told the mass gathering at a park in the city.
Saeed is a renowned cleric and a former leader of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba Islamic militant group that was banned by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2002 in an effort to curb extremism and militancy.
Since then, Saeed has set up the Jamaat al-Dawat group, which mainly preaches Islam, runs seminaries and operates medical centers.
The government had recently put Saeed under house arrest for several days to stop him from leading rallies against the cartoons after a spate of violence during protests last month left five people dead.
On Friday, Saeed urged protesters to continue organizing rallies to force the government to sever diplomatic ties with all countries where the cartoons, regarded by Muslims as blasphemous, were published. “All Islamic countries should immediately boycott the products of such countries, and we will not tolerate any bad thing against Islam, the holy Quran and our beloved Prophet Muhammad,” he said.
Several other anti-U.S. clerics also addressed the rally. Although leaders of several countries where the cartoons were published have expressed regret for the offense caused by the caricatures’ publication, some hard-line Islamists in this Islamic nation of 150 million say the cartoonists should be sentenced to death.