BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims transformed a religious ceremony in Lebanon on Thursday into an emotional but peaceful protest against cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
“Defending the prophet should continue worldwide,” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, told the crowd. “Let (U.S. Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice, (President) 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.”
“Today, we are defending the dignity of our prophet with a word, a demonstration but let George Bush and the arrogant world know that if we have to ... we will defend our prophet with our blood, not our voices,” Nasrallah added.
Rice on Wednesday accused Iran and Syria, both backers of Hezbollah and at loggerheads with the West, of deliberately stoking rage among Muslims.
Bush urged governments to stop the violence, including attacks on Western diplomatic missions in parts of the Muslim world.
Considering any portrayal of their prophet as blasphemous, angry Muslims have demonstrated around the world over the cartoons, first published in Denmark, then Norway and several other countries in Europe and elsewhere. At least a dozen people have died as police broke up several protests.
Nasrallah said there would be no compromise before Denmark apologizes and the European Parliament and individual assemblies in Europe pass laws that prohibit insulting the Prophet.
The European Union, meanwhile, sought to calm tension, calling for a voluntary media code of conduct to avoid inflaming religious sensibilities.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan scolded the media on Thursday for continuing to publish the controversial cartoons and defended an attempt by Islamic nations to have a new U.N. human-rights council address religious defamation.
“This is so widespread, and it is unfortunate; we all need to take steps to calm the situation,” he said.
Danish travel warning
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.
Lebanon has charged 203 people, mostly Lebanese but also Syrians and Palestinians, with taking part in the Sunday riots and promised swift trials.
But Denmark advised its citizens to leave Lebanon, fearing more protests in coming days.
“All travel to Lebanon is discouraged. All Danes are urged to leave the country. Danes should remain indoors until arrangements to leave the country can be made,” the Foreign Ministry said in a warning issued on Thursday.
Despite wind and rain, there was a high turnout at Thursday's protest -- put by security sources at more than 400,000, and by Hezbollah at 700,000. The march is an annual event to mark Ashura, when Shiites mourn the death of the prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein, killed in Karbala in Iraq 1,300 years ago.
In Afghanistan, where three days of riots left more than 10 people dead, U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said the United States and other countries are examining whether extremist groups incited the violence.
“Other countries are having the same demonstrations, same problems — very violent demonstrations, starting peaceful, turning violent,” Yonts said when asked if al-Qaida and the Taliban may have been involved.
He said the United States and other countries would look to see “if this is something larger than just a small demonstration — if there is a tie to it, if there is an infrastructure, a connection to it.”
Zahor Afghan, the editor of Erada, Afghanistan’s most respected newspaper, said he felt there was definite incitement.
“No media in Afghanistan has published or broadcast pictures of these cartoons. The radio has been reporting on it, but there are definitely people using this to incite violence against the presence of foreigners in Afghanistan,” he said.
Background to the controversy
The cartoons were first published on Sept. 30 in a Danish Daily, The Jyllands-Posten. Several days later, a coalition of Muslims in Denmark demanded a meeting with the country’s Culture Ministry to protest the drawings, but the ministry refused.
The Muslim coalition turned to foreign embassies, and then went on a tour of the Muslim and Arab world between December and January to call attention to the cartoons. Soon after, newspapers around the world began republishing the drawings and the issue returned to the spotlight.
Newspapers have argued that publishing the cartoons is a matter of free speech, but many Muslims find that argument hard to believe.
In related developments reported Thursday:
- Two staff at a university in the United Arab Emirates were sacked after one of them, an American, made copies of the cartoons in an attempt to spur debate among her students. Her colleague, a British man, was fired when he defended her.
- Egypt banned the latest Arabic editions of the German magazines Der Speigel and Focus because they reprinted the cartoons, the Egyptian state news agency MENA said.
- A Malaysian daily reported on Thursday that the government had decided to suspend the publishing license of the Sarawak Tribune newspaper for publishing the caricatures last weekend apparently to illustrate a story on the global outrage.
- The directors of two Algerian television channels were also sacked for showing the cartoons during news coverage.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.