BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 5 ó Protesters angry over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad clashed with Lebanese security forces on Sunday, setting a building housing the Danish Mission on fire and attacking a nearby church.
The sectarian tone of the violence in the predominantly Christian Achrafieh section of East Beirut on Sunday raised fears of deepening divisions in Lebanon a year after a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated, setting off political crises in Syria and Lebanon.
An early morning march through downtown Beirut soon exploded into violence, when a breakaway crowd surged toward a high-rise building that houses the Austrian and Danish Missions, chanting obscene anti-Danish slogans in Arabic and vandalizing cars, office buildings and a Maronite Catholic church nearby. Other protesters burned Danish flags and flags bearing images of the cross.
Lebanese security forces fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, but a group managed to make its way to the building, breaking windows and setting it on fire. The fire quickly spread through the building, and witnesses said they saw people jumping out of windows to escape the flames. Reuters reported that one person had died. A Dutch news photographer at the scene was beaten when several demonstrators mistook him for being Danish.
Demonstrators also attacked police officers with stones and set fire to several fire engines, witnesses said. Lebanese security forces regained control over the area within two hours, using water cannons and bullets fired over protesters’ heads. The Danish Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged Danes to leave Lebanon. On Saturday, protesters set fire to the Danish and Swedish Missions in Damascus, Syria.
“This was a worst-case scenario, a nightmare scenario,” said Thomas May, the Danish consul general in Dubai. “I don’t think anyone in their wildest imagination would have expected an escalation like what we have seen.”
Late on Sunday, the Lebanese interior minister, Hassan al-Sabaa, offered to resign over the way the episode was handled. The Interior Ministry said that 21 members of the country’s internal security forces had been injured, and a source in the state security service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide the information, said that 174 people had been arrested and that most of them were not Lebanese.
Lebanese Muslim leaders quickly condemned the attacks and appealed for calm. Lebanon’s grand mufti, Muhammad Rashid Kabbani, denounced the violence, saying there were infiltrators among the protesters trying to “harm the stability of Lebanon.”
Muhammad Khalil, an Islamic teacher from Akkar, in northern Lebanon, and an organizer of the march, said: “The burning of buildings and the destruction of cars is unacceptable. This was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration, but people who love God and Muhammad are becoming overwhelmed by their anger.”
On Sunday night, several Lebanese Christian political parties, including the Phalangists, the Aounists and the Lebanese Forces, held an unusual counterdemonstration near the Maronite church that was damaged during the earlier protest. “We are here to say that nobody can get the Christians out of Lebanon,” said Mark Mahfouz, 34, a member of the Lebanese Forces. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also urged calm, declaring that “this is absolutely not the way we express our opinions.”
But many Lebanese also spoke of unity, the memory of the 15-year sectarian civil war still fresh in many minds. At the counterdemonstration, a Christian woman who would give her name only as Rita and who lives near the Danish Mission said men leaving the demonstration had entered the bakery where she worked.
“They were apologizing,” she said, and saying, ” ‘We didn’t mean for this to be a violent demonstration. We only wanted to say that we stand behind the name of Muhammad. But we believe that we are all Lebanese together.’ “
Katherine Zoepf reported from Beirut for this article, and Hassan M. Fattah from Safaga, Egypt. Lina Sinjab contributed reporting from Damascus.