ISLAMABAD - Police in Pakistan on Friday tear-gassed and dispersed angry protesters who tried to march toward the French Embassy in Islamabad to demonstrate against the republishing of cartoons in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Anger has grown across Muslim nations against French President Emmanuel Macron who has pledged to defend the freedom of expression and said France “will not renounce the caricatures,” which Muslims deem blasphemous.
Witnesses said that about 3,000 people, mostly activists of Islamic parties, emerged from mosques in the Pakistani capital following Friday’s mass prayers and gathered on the main road leading to the diplomatic enclave, which houses foreign embassies.
The crowd demanded Pakistan expel the French ambassador, sever ties with France and called for the boycott of French products. The rally turned violent and broke through security blockades, prompting riot police to launch tear gas shells and rubber bullets.
Protesters retaliated by hurling stones at police vehicles and vandalizing a police post. Pakistani officials and rally participants did not report any casualties.
“We demand the French embassy must immediately be shut down and the government must recall Pakistani ambassador from Paris,” said Zaheer Ahmed, a rally participant and the leader of a local traders’ association.
“Islamic countries must sever economic ties with France until their president apologies to Muslims for hurting their sentiments,” said Safiullah Khattak, a religious party activist.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, thousands of people also took to the streets in major cities where angry protesters were seen burning effigies of Macron and stomping on French flags.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Friday in a nationally televised speech to a gathering in Islamabad that “a small group" is running a campaign to malign Islam by provoking Muslim sentiments.
“When you make cartoons, it is not freedom of speech, it is deliberately hurting the sentiments of 1.3 billion Muslims,” Khan said.
Anti-France rallies also took place in neighboring Afghanistan, denouncing Macron over his criticism of Islam.
Demonstrators demanded Kabul sever ties with Paris and recall its ambassador. The radical Islamist Hizb-e-Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar set the French flag ablaze at its rally.
Hekmatyar said Macron’s remarks had insulted Islam and hurt the sentiments of Muslims around the world. He warned the French president that if he doesn’t “control the situation, we are going to a third world war and Europe will be responsible.”
Friday’s protests in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Islamic countries came on the day the Muslims celebrated the birthday of Prophet Muhammad.