BEIRUT, Feb. 5 -- Thousands of Muslim protesters enraged over the publication of caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad set ablaze the Danish Embassy on Sunday and rampaged through a predominantly Christian neighborhood, dangerously escalating sectarian tensions in a country whose mélange of faiths can sometimes serve as a microcosm of the world's religious divide.
The unrest was some of the worst in Lebanon in years, and leaders from across the political and religious spectrum appealed for calm. In vain, some Muslim clerics tried to step into the hours-long fray to end the clashes, which news agencies said left at least one demonstrator dead and 18 wounded.
But in the streets, fistfights broke out between Christian and Muslim Lebanese, after protesters threw rocks at a Maronite Catholic Church, broke windows at the Lebanese Red Cross office and shattered windshields of cars. Bands of Christian youths congregated with sticks and iron bars, promising to defend their neighborhoods.
"Those who are committing these acts have nothing to do with Islam or with Lebanon," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told Lebanon's Future television station before the protests ended. "This is absolutely not the way we express our opinions."
The unrest in Lebanon, mired in its own political uncertainty, was the latest turn in a controversy that has become worldwide and shows no signs of ebbing. Demonstrators also took to the streets Sunday in Afghanistan, the West Bank, Iraq and New Zealand. A day earlier, protesters burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria after charging past security barriers.
In their scope and vitriol, the protests say much about the state of relations between the West and the Muslim world in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The anger was ignited by 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were commissioned in September by a Danish newspaper to challenge Islam's ban on depicting the prophet. Along with picturing him, some lampooned him, with one artist rendering his turban as a bomb with a burning fuse. After protests began, other European papers reprinted the cartoons.
They declared it an issue of free expression, the cornerstone of Western liberalism; many Muslims cast it as another insult in a conflict that, in the Muslim world, is most often reflected through the lens of a religious struggle with an American-led West.
"What are you going to do?" asked a leaflet circulated in Beirut that called for Sunday's protest.
"Bush and his group have invaded and are fighting wars by all means available," it added. "Their goal: destroying the Islamic nation ideologically and economically and stealing and looting its resources."
The protest drew as many as 20,000 people answering calls from mosques Friday and similar leaflets circulated in Beirut and other cities. Most of them stayed peaceful. But bands of demonstrators broke through police lines at the Danish Embassy, and hundreds of others surged through nearby streets, waving green religious flags and shouted, "God is greatest." Police shot into the air and fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters who threw stones, set ablaze fire trucks and overturned police vehicles.
The Danish Embassy was gutted and its granite façade scalded. Acrid black smoke spilled out of its windows hours later, as fire trucks tried to contain the blaze. Workers swept up glass that littered the narrow streets of the neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh.
The Danish Foreign Ministry urged Danes on Sunday to leave Lebanon and urged its citizens not to travel there. The embassy, bracing for the expected protests, was evacuated Saturday. It also housed the Austrian Consulate.
Published February 5, 2006, Washington Post Foreign Service