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Christians targeted in cartoons row

Alex Strick, Damascus
Robert Mickens, Rome

The Tablet.co.uk

To read the full story, click here: Christians targeted in cartoons row

A Catholic priest was murdered in Turkey as violence spread across the Muslim world last week in reaction to the publishing of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a suicide bomber.

Vatican officials expressed shock and dismay at the murder of Fr Andrea Santoro, an Italian missionary priest, while he prayed in his church in north-east Turkey last Sunday. A gunman screamed “Allah-u-Akhbar” (God is great) as he fired two shots from close range at the 60-year-old priest. Turkish police arrested a 16-year-old male on Tuesday in connection with the killing, and Turkey ’s NTV news channel said the youth confessed to killing the priest because he was angered by the cartoons of Muhammad.

In Indonesia , Pakistan , Afghanistan , Iran , Iraq , Syria , Lebanon and Somalia violence erupted as Christian communities and Scandinavian embassies were attacked to avenge the perceived blasphemy. The protests have led to at least eight deaths in Afghanistan and one in Somalia .

In Afghanistan on Tuesday, three people died as Nato peacekeepers sent 120 British reinforcements to the north-western town of Maimana after hundreds of Afghans protesting against the cartoons attacked a Norwegian-led base.

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n Beirut , some 22,000 Muslim demonstrators crowded into the largely Christian area of Ashrafiyyeh last Sunday. Lebanese security forces unwilling to fire on demonstrators were overrun as the Danish embassy was set alight and looted. A Maronite church and the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox archbishop were vandalised, and numerous roadside shrines were smashed, despite the reported pleas of one Muslim cleric from a mosque loudspeaker: “Do not harm the holy church; the anger is against Denmark and not Christians.”

In Iraq , Muslim students beat Christian students at Mosul University in response to fatwas (Islamic religious decrees) issued by religious leaders in the city calling for Muslims to “expel the crusaders and infidels from the streets, schools and institutions because they insulted the person of the prophet in Denmark ”.

Today Islam in most of the world forbids any portrayal of Muhammad, lest it encourages idolatry. The cartoons first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September, and were subsequently reprinted in more than 20 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, America and even in Jordan and Yemen . In Lebanon , where 40 per cent of the population is Christian, tensions are especially high due to a series of bombs in Christian areas late last year. In Iraq , the rate of Christians fleeing from the country has spiralled since the recent bombings of churches in Kirkuk and Baghdad which killed three ( Tablet, 4 February). Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk reported that many Muslims had received text messages calling on them to take revenge against Christians for the Danish cartoons.

European intelligence and security sources suggested this week that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group banned in Egypt and other Arab countries, had worked hard to whip up Muslim anger over the Danish cartoons. Late last year, a group of Danish imams and activists toured the Middle East with a 43-page dossier outlining what they called the racism and Islamophobia suffered by Muslims in Denmark . As well as the 12 cartoons of Muhammad first published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, the dossier contained three obscene images the imams alleged were sent to Danish Muslims as hate mail.

The murder of Fr Santoro came just one day after the Vatican had implicitly condemned both the European newspapers who published the cartoons, and the anti-Western violence across the Muslim world.

“The right to freedom of thought and expression … does not imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers,” said the Vatican statement. “Exasperated criticism or derision of others … can comprise an inadmissible provocation.” The Vatican also condemned the violent reactions across the Middle East .

Benedict XVI prayed that Fr Santoro’s blood would become “a seed of hope in building authentic fraternity among peoples”. He called Fr Santoro an “esteemed and zealous priest” and a “courageous witness of the Gospel of charity”. Fr Santoro, whose funeral was due to be held yesterday in Rome’s Basilica of St John Lateran, had been a popular parish priest in Rome since his ordination in 1970. He had been working in Turkey as a missionary priest for two years, and was known for helping troubled young people and promoting dialogue.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told The Tablet on Tuesday that it might be possible to “move up the date” of one of the dialogue sessions already scheduled with Muslim leaders. “This morning I was talking to [one] leader who is trying to calm people’s sentiments,” the 68-year-old English-born prelate said, adding that “certain people are instigating these conflicts”.