Damascus: Embassies set on fire

Thousands of Syrian demonstrators storm embassies to protest offensive cartoons.

damascus burn eu 298  (photo credit: )
damascus burn eu 298
(photo credit: )
Thousands of Syrians enraged by caricatures of Islam's revered prophet torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies on Saturday - the most violent in days of furious protests by Muslims in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Faced with the spreading violence and international concern, top religious officials in Syria urged calm. In Gaza, Palestinians marched through the streets, storming European buildings and burning German and Danish flags. Protesters smashed the windows of the German cultural center and threw stones at the European Commission building, police said. Iraqis rallying by the hundreds demanded an apology from the European Union, and the leader of the Palestinian group Hamas called the cartoons "an unforgivable insult" that merited punishment by death. Pakistan summoned the envoys of nine Western countries in protest, and even Europeans took to the streets in Denmark and Britain to voice their anger. At the heart of the protest: 12 caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad first published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten in September and reprinted in European media in the past week. The cartoons have touched a raw nerve in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Muhammad. Aggravating the affront, one caricature of Muhammad depicts him wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he cannot apologize for his country's free press. But other European leaders tried Saturday to calm the storm. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel said she understood Muslims were hurt - though it did not justify violence. "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," Merkel told an international security conference in Munich, Germany. The Vatican deplored the violence, but said certain provocative forms of criticism were unacceptable. "The right to freedom of thought and expression ... cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in its first statement on the controversy. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who has criticized European media for reprinting the caricatures, said there was no justification for the violence. "We stand in solidarity with the Danish government in its call for calm and its demand that all its diplomats and diplomatic premises are properly protected. It's incumbent on the Syrian authorities to act in this regard." Poland's Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said he would tell Muslim ambassadors next week "how sorry he feels that these caricatures have been reprinted," his spokesman said. But Denmark and Norway did not wait for more violence. With their embassies in Damascus up in flames, the foreign ministries advised their citizens to leave Syria without delay. "It's horrible and totally unacceptable," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said on Danish public television Saturday. No diplomats were injured, officials said. But Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds - whose country, along with Chile, has an embassy in the same building - said she would lodge a formal protest over the lack of security. In Santiago, the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Chilean Embassy in Damascus was also torched, but nobody was injured. Amid the furor, Syria's Grand Mufti urged calm, noting the demonstration had started in a "nice and disciplined way," but then turned violent because of "some members who do not understand the language of dialogue with others and turned it into destroying and burning of properties." "We never expressed our anger in such a way, and we believe that dialogue should be done through guidance and teaching, not through killing, harming and burning," Sheik Ahmed Badr-Eddine Hassoun said in remarks carried by state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA. The country's minister of religious affairs, Mohammed Ziyad al-Ayoubi, also criticized what had happened, saying, "It is our right to demonstrate and express our anger over what some European newspapers published, but it is not our right to cross the lines that were drawn by Islam." The demonstrations in Damascus began peacefully with protesters gathering outside the building housing the Danish Embassy. But they began throwing stones and eventually broke through police barricades. Some scrambled up concrete barriers protecting the embassy, climbed into the building and set a fire. "With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God!" the demonstrators chanted. Some replaced the Danish flag with a green flag printed with the words, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." Demonstrators moved into the Norwegian Embassy, about 6 kilometers away, also setting fire to it before being dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. Hundreds of police and troops barricaded the road leading to the French Embassy, but protesters were able to break through briefly before fleeing from the force of water cannons. In Gaza, masked gunmen affiliated with the Fatah Party called on the Palestinian Authority and Muslim nations to recall their diplomatic missions from Denmark until the government apologized. In the West Bank town of Hebron, about 50 Palestinians marched to the headquarters of the international observer mission there, burned a Danish flag and demanded a boycott of Danish goods. "We will redeem our prophet, Muhammad, with our blood!" they chanted. Mahmoud Zahar, leader of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, told the Italian daily Il Giornale the cartoonists should be punished by death: "We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet and instead here we are, protesting peacefully," he said. Hundreds of Iraqis rallied south of Baghdad, some carrying banners urging "honest people all over the world to condemn this act" and demanding an EU apology. Anger swelled in Europe, too. Young Muslims clashed briefly with police in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and some 700 people rallied outside the Danish Embassy in London. A South African court banned the country's Sunday newspapers from reprinting the cartoons. Iran's president ordered his commerce minister to study canceling all trade contracts with European countries whose newspapers have published the caricatures, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the caricatures showed the "impudence and rudeness" of Western newspapers against the prophet, as well as the "maximum resentment of the Zionists (Jews) ruling these countries against Islam and Muslims." The leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan denounced the publication of the cartoons. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry summoned nine envoys to lodge protests against the publication of the "blasphemous" sketches. "Let the perpetrators of the insult see the gravity of their own mistakes which only they themselves can and should correct," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.