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.
"It's totally unacceptable, and we are going to raise the question with the United Nations because this is a violation of international law," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters.
But Syria blamed Denmark for the violence. The Danish government should have apologized for the caricatures, published in the Danish independent newspaper Jyllands-Posten, said an editorial in Syria's state-run daily newspaper. The Danish prime minister and Jyllands-Posten apologized last week if the cartoons gave offense, but upheld the newspaper's right to print them.
But many observers quietly questioned how intense unrest could possibly erupt in a country as tightly controlled as Syria — unless there was tacit approval from the regime. Attempts to stage similar demonstrations over the Palestinian uprising and the war in Iraq have been brutally squashed in recent years.
And many Lebanese suspected Syria's hand in the streets of Beirut on Sunday. After sending soldiers into Lebanon during the civil war, Damascus remained the de facto ruler of its neighbor for years before withdrawing its soldiers last spring. Even now, many Lebanese complain of Syrian meddling and blame Damascus for a string of political assassinations, including the death last year of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing that also killed 22 others on a Beirut street.
A U.N. commission investigating Hariri's assassination has implicated top Lebanese and Syrian security officials.
"These are people who want to destabilize the country," said Lebanese Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis, who drove through the Christian neighborhoods under armed guard to appeal for calm as the riots quieted down. "They are receiving orders from the source we all know to provoke a clash between the communities."
Lebanon's Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani also blamed infiltrators for the violence, which he called an attempt to "harm the stability of Lebanon."
Lebanese have been warning for months that Syria might try to provoke unrest by tampering with Lebanon's delicate religious balance.
"Syria wanted to make another war in Lebanon, and they want the war to be between Christians and Muslims again," said Michel Saouma, a 34-year-old sales manager. "So they did this thing to show the world that the people of Lebanon cannot live by themselves."
Of the more than 170 protesters arrested, 76 were Syrian, Reuters reported. An additional 38 were Lebanese, 35 were Palestinian and 25 were stateless Bedouins.
As the riots raged, many Muslim clerics appealed to the crowd for calm. One Muslim stood in front of a Greek Orthodox church to protect it from the mob.
Meanwhile, a 2,000-strong security force fired off hundreds of canisters of tear gas, shot live rounds into the air and sprayed water cannons.
When the demonstrators finally were pushed out, Christians gathered in the streets, still hazy from tear gas and smoke. Some of them wept from anger as they swept up the chunks of broken glass. Many described the rioting as an assault on their faith, and an unwelcome reminder of the battles of religious militias during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
"Why bring it here? We have nothing to do with it," said Salim Seoud, a 43-year-old truck driver. "We feel awful about what happened in Denmark, but why bring it to the streets of Lebanon? We're trying to get away from these kinds of problems."
Some accused the Lebanese government of leaving them at the mercy of the mob. The demonstration had been publicized for days, with leaflets and calls from mosques.
"This is very dangerous. It shows that they could do anything, go to any home, kill anybody," said Johnny Kairouz, a 25-year-old who works at an advertising agency. "The internal security failed at the easiest test they've had. This was open and planned, and it could have been prevented."
Solemn and defiant, Christians flocked to the damaged church by the hundreds. A woman with a rosary prayed silently over a shattered window; inside, altar boys and priests prepared for an evening Mass. But on the street, young men waved flags that are symbols for civil war militias.
The scene was a stark contrast to a year ago, when Hariri's assassination drove thousands of Lebanese into the streets, chanting for religious tolerance and unity against the Syrians.
"They came for the Danish Consulate, but it became Christian against Muslim. We thought there was national unity, but there is no national unity," said a 29-year-old hairstylist named Elie Diab, who stood outside the church while chants rang into the night.
"If they want to confront us, we're ready to fight face to face," Diab said. "If we are forced to fight, we will. We have enough weapons, thank God."
He turned to the man next to him, an older gentleman in a tweed jacket.
"There's no Christian that doesn't have a weapon at his place, isn't that true?" Diab asked.
"Of course," the other man replied.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times