JERUSALEM (AP) – Thousands of Muslim worshippers staged marches against Pope Benedict XVI in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza on Friday, waving green Hamas banners and denouncing him as a ”coward” and an ”agent of the Americans.”
The demonstrations in the Middle East, as well as smaller rallies in Pakistan and Malaysia, came as Benedict invited representatives of Muslim countries to meet Monday at his summer residence, the Vatican said.
The Vatican has been seeking to defuse anger across the Muslim world that followed the pope’s remarks about Islam last week in Germany.
Benedict cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as ”evil and inhuman,” particularly ”his command to spread by the sword the faith.”
The pope said Sunday that he was ”deeply sorry” about the reactions to his remarks and that they did not reflect his own opinions. Earlier this week, he said his comments were open to misinterpretation and that he had ”deep respect” for Islam.
He has not issued a direct apology, as demanded by Muslim leaders. Earlier in the week, protesters attacked seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza, causing little damage and no injuries.
At Islam’s third-holiest shrine, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, hundreds of worshippers hoisted black flags and banners that read, ”Conquering Rome is the answer.” Protesters chanted, ”The army of Islam will return.” The march dispersed peacefully.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Hamas supporters took to the streets after prayers, shouting slogans against the pope and waving Hamas flags. Raising their hands to the sky, the more than 2,000 protesters chanted: ”We put up with hunger, detention and occupation, but we won’t put up with the offending the prophet. We sacrifice our lives for you prophet.”
Marching in the streets of Nablus, the protesters called the pope a ”coward and agent of the Americans.”
In northern Gaza, more than 1,000 Islamic Jihad supporters shouted in praise of the prophet, and waved black flags. Khader Habib, an Islamic Jihad leader, told the crowd that the pope’s comments ”indicate that this pope doesn’t understand Islam or the prophet.”
In Ramallah, hundreds of Hamas supporters marched around the city center.
Hundreds of radical Islamists chanting ”Down with the pope” rallied in several Pakistani cities.
More than 500 supporters of a coalition of six Islamic parties, called Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, demanded the pope’s removal and accused him of supporting the policies of President Bush.
”If I get hold of the pope, I will hang him,” Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior MMA leader, told protesters in Islamabad, who carried placards reading ”Terrorist, extremist Pope be hanged!” and ”Down with Muslims’ enemies!”
In Karachi, another MMA leader, Ghafoor Ahmed, accused the pope of wanting to force ”Christians and Muslims against each other.”
”We condemn the pope. We will not tolerate insulting remarks against Islam or our Prophet Muhammad,” Ahmed said at a protest that drew about 300 people.
Another 200 rallied in the eastern city of Lahore, while several dozen protested in Multan.
The demonstrations came a day after 1,000 clerics and religious leaders met in Lahore and called for the pope’s removal and warned the West of consequences if it didn’t change its stance regarding Islam.
Thursday’s meeting was organized by radical Islamic Jamaat al-Dawat group, which runs schools, colleges and medical clinics. In April, Washington put the group on a list of terrorist organizations for its alleged links with militants fighting in the Indian part of Kashmir.
After the meeting, a statement was issued demanding the West ”change its stance regarding Islam (or) it will face severe consequences.” It did not elaborate.
It also said that jihad was not terrorism and that ”Islam was not propagated with the sword.”
Malaysia’s opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party staged demonstrations outside mosques nationwide, calling for the pope to fully retract his remarks. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city, some 150 party members chanted ”Stop the insults” and held a banner that read ”We Muslims are peace-loving people.”
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Zarar Khan in Karachi, Asif Shahzad in Lahore and Khalid Tanveer in Multan contributed to this report.