Danish Consulate in Beirut

DANISH CONSULATE IN BERUIT: Lebanese firefighters extinguish the fire at the Danish consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, after thousands of Lebanese Muslim protestors stormed and set ablaze the building after the police failed to disperse them, witnesses said. (Wael Hamzeh / EPA / February 5, 2006)

BEIRUT — Thousands of Muslims rioted in downtown Beirut on Sunday, setting fire to the Danish Consulate, attacking a prominent Maronite Catholic church and smashing car and shop windows in protest against the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Western newspapers.

The pandemonium took a sectarian turn as demonstrators cut an angry path through a predominantly Christian neighborhood.

It was the first time in days of protests around the world that Muslims, who consider the caricatures blasphemous, took their anger out on another community. For Lebanese, the rioting was an unsettling echo of a 15-year civil war fought along religious lines.

The riots came a day after similar unrest flared in the Syrian capital, causing some here to question whether Syria could be latching on to the controversy — and generalized anti-Western sentiment — for political purposes.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora suggested that the riots in Damascus were "a lesson to some in Lebanon to do the same." There was no immediate response from Damascus.

In Beirut, where religious tensions have fueled generations of political violence, rioting dragged on for hours in the Christian neighborhood of Achrifiyeh, leaving at least 30 people injured and one dead, Associated Press reported.

Interior Minister Hassan Sebaa offered his resignation later Sunday in an emergency Cabinet meeting, as accusations mounted that security forces were too slow to respond to the mobs.

Wielding hammers, rocks and wooden clubs, Muslim demonstrators packed the streets, chanting slogans against Jews and America. Many of the demonstrators marched calmly, but others set cars and trash cans on fire, smashed a police car into the side of a church and uprooted trees.

As they moved through the streets toward the Danish Consulate, some demonstrators spray-painted slogans on storefronts and ripped down commemorative posters of Gibran Tueni, the critic of Syria and Christian newspaper publisher who was assassinated in December.

"This is not violence, this is the right of every Muslim to fight for the prophet," said Ali Allameh, a bearded cleric whose hair was tied back with a bandanna. "Those who insult the prophet are not people, are not human beings. They're pigs and chimpanzees. Even pigs are better than these people."

The demonstrations in Beirut were the latest venting of outrage in a conflict between freedom of the press and religious sensitivities. European governments defend the publication of the cartoons — one of which depicts the prophet Muhammad with a turban shaped like a bomb — by citing freedom of the press.

But many Muslims took the satire as hard evidence that Judeo-Christian cultures in the West exhibit a lack of sensitivity toward Islam, to the point of animosity. Islamic tradition forbids any artistic rendering of the prophets, including Jesus and Moses.

Denmark, which reportedly had evacuated its consular offices in Lebanon in anticipation of a Muslim backlash, urged its citizens to leave the country.

Meanwhile, anger continued to ripple around the globe, with protests in Afghanistan, the West Bank, Iraq and New Zealand.

Iraq's Transportation Ministry froze contracts with Denmark and Norway, and a radical group in Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, threatened attacks against non-Muslims.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking on CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer," said he was "personally offended" by the cartoons being reprinted in the European press last week, but appealed for calm. The cartoons first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September.

"I would ask my fellow Muslims around the world that the prophet Muhammad is much greater, much greater a prophet [than] to be insulted by these cartoons," Karzai said. "And we, as Muslims … God instructs us to forgive."

This morning, however, one person was killed and two were wounded when shooting erupted at a protest in the eastern Afghan town of Mehtarlam, Reuters news agency reported.

Syrian protesters set fire to the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus on Saturday. The governments of the United States and Norway have placed the blame for that rioting squarely on the Syrian government for failing to protect the embassies.