BEIRUT: Peaceful demonstrations took place throughout Lebanon Friday in protest of an anti-Islam film and a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, amid strict security measures across the country.
France closed its embassy and consulate Friday, and many French schools did not hold classes in anticipation of protests against the publishing of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad by a French satirical magazine earlier this week.
This came days after an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. outraged many Muslims, who took to the streets in countries across the world.
Several thousand supporters of the Sidon-based Sheikh Ahmad Assir gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs Square to rally against the insults to the Prophet.
“Prophet Mohammad is my leader forever,” supporters chanted, many of whom clutched Islamic flags.
“We would sacrifice [our] mothers and fathers for you, Prophet,” read some of the banners demonstrators held.
Syrians supporting the Syrian opposition were also on hand, some carrying pre-Baath-era Syrian flags.
“We are here so that the world will take notice that we support the Syrian revolution, which is an Islamic revolution, and to support Sheikh Ahmad Assir who stands by us against the tyrant [Bashar Assad],” Talal Khalaf, who identified himself as the head of the media committee of Deir al-Zour Revolutionaries, told The Daily Star.
Addressing the protesters, Assir slammed French President Francois Hollande’s defense of the cartoons.
“Yesterday France’s president ... said that the publishing of the insulting cartoon [of the Prophet] reflects freedom of expression. At the same time he denies protesters [against the cartoons] freedom of expression,” Assir said.
“Those states that defend and do not hold extremist groups ... accountable create extremism in all religions,” Assir added.
A 12-minute-trailer for the “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-budget movie produced in the U.S., garnered attention last week.
Assir said the film was not the first U.S. crime against Muslims, explaining that by not intervening to halt Assad’s crackdown on an 18-month uprising, the U.S. was party to the regime’s slaughter of Syrian people.
He stressed that “free and honorable” Christians have nothing to do with these insults, thanking “our Christian partners in Lebanon,” particularly President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai for condemning the film.
In an indirect reference to a mass rally against the film organized by Hezbollah in Beirut’s southern suburbs earlier this week, Assir criticized those protesters who raised banners bearing Assad’s face.
“He who raises the portrait of butcher Bashar to protest insults against the Prophet is actually insulting the Prophet because this criminal ... assaults those who love the Prophet in Syria,” Assir said.
The Sidon preacher also slammed the attacks by protesters against a Tripoli branch of the American fast food chain KFC last week, calling this the wrong way to oppose slurs against the Prophet.
One protester was killed and 15 policemen were injured in Tripoli when demonstrators clashed with security forces and set ablaze KFC and Hardee’s, which are housed in the same building.
Internal Security Forces and Army personnel boosted security measures in preparation for Assir’s Beirut rally, blocking many roads that led to Martyrs Square.
In east Lebanon, Hezbollah staged a demonstration in Baalbek as part of a series of protests this week its leader, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, called for.
Thousands of locals, including prominent religious and political figures, marched in the city’s streets.
“We gathered today to renew the pledge ... with all the honorable people in the world, [both] Muslims and Christians, to confront those who want to humiliate the dignity of the Prophet through this insulting film and tarnish the pure image of Islam,” said Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah official.
Yazbek added that U.S. attempts to spark Christian-Islamic strife with the film had hit a dead end.
“What they did has actually united Muslims and Christians, as everybody has felt the need to meet and hold dialogue,” he added, pointing to the participation of Christians in the march.
In Tripoli, protests did not take place due to heavy security measures around the city, particularly at French institutions including schools, cultural centers and banks.
In the southern coastal city of Sidon, angry protesters burned U.S. and Israeli flags, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Sheikh Maher Hammoud called on any Muslims capable of killing the filmmaker to do so: “Every Muslim capable of killing the insulter of our religion, the producer of this film, should do so.”
The Sidon protesters chanted slogans calling for the death of the producer of “Innocence of Muslims.” The French Cultural Center closed its Sidon branch.
In the Ras al-Nabaa neighborhood of Beirut, demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags several hundred meters away from the French Embassy where the Lebanese Army and ISF were deployed.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that his government had stepped up security at embassies in certain countries. Security around the American Embassy in Lebanon has also been boosted since protests over the erupted. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari and Antoine Amrieh