A second day of loud anti-war protests greeted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday, and the U.S. diplomat heard subtler pleas for peace and tolerance from Christian and Muslim leaders in this multiethnic but divided northern town.
Rice toured a Gothic cathedral in a gray rain, and later met with local Muslim leaders including the town’s mayor, a Ugandan immigrant. Blackburn is about 20 percent Muslim, and opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq is strong.
The dean of Blackburn Cathedral concluded a tour of the stone church with a short prayer.
“We hold before God all those who have a responsibility to make good and far-reaching decisions whilst listening to different views of how peace and justice may best be promoted,” the very Rev. Christopher Armstrong said, as Rice stood beside him with bowed head.
Outside the town hall later, about 200 demonstrators shouted “Shame on you,” as Rice’s party arrived. A huge orange banner read, “War on terror war on Islam.”
“To a certain extent, the protesters make my point, that democracy is the only system where people’s voices can be heard and heard peacefully,” Rice told reporters following a meeting with about a dozen local Muslim leaders.
Rice also said she looked forward to the day when the U.S. could close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The prison will not remain open “any longer than is needed,” Rice said at a news conference in Blackburn’s town hall. “We have to recognize Guantanamo is there for a reason, because we captured people on battlefields ... who were either plotting, or planning or actively engaged in terrorist activities.”
The U.S. will be “glad of the day when conditions permit the closure of Guantanamo,” Rice said.
The shouts of demonstrators and the blare of police whistles could be clearly heard outside the building as Rice spoke alongside her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
“I’m not embarrassed in the least,” by the reception Rice received in his Parliament district, Straw said.
Muslim community leaders express concerns
At the meeting, Muslim community leaders expressed to Rice the widespread opposition to the war in Iraq. They also raised concerns about Guantanamo as well as U.S. policies in the Palestinian territories, a mosque leader and Muslim businessman said afterward.
Kham Khotia, of the Blackburn Asian Business Council, said he and other leaders gave Rice the same message of opposition to U.S. policies that could be heard in less polite tones outside the window.
“I’m not naive enough to think that this meeting of an hour is going to change American foreign policy,” Khotia said.
“We never thought she would say she would close Guantanamo Bay tomorrow, or would pull out of Iraq tomorrow, or that Palestine would have a state tomorrow,” said Ibrahim Master, an official at the town’s Masjid-al-Hidayah mosque — which earlier canceled a planned visit by Rice.
Outside, Abu Musa, a 27-year-old computer technician and worshipper at the mosque, said the Muslim leaders holding talks with Rice inside the civic building did not represent majority opinion.
“Fallujah is the city of mosques and was decimated by U.S. soldiers, we could not then allow Rice to visit mosques here, her presence would have been a desecration,” Musa said. “Young Muslims protesting are more politically aware than the older generation — who never want to rock the boat.”
The town’s mayor, Yusuf Jan-Varmani — a Muslim and former Ugandan refugee who was dressed Saturday in ceremonial red and brown robes, greeted Rice.
“I don’t mind the boos,” he said. “The more they boo, the better for me. It means they have the right to protest.”