By Amir Shah Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan — Hundreds of angry Afghans burned a U.S. flag and chanted “Death to the Christians” today to protest plans by a small American church to torch copies of the Muslim holy book on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Religious and political leaders across the Muslim world, as well as several U.S. officials, have asked the church to call off the plan, warning it would lead to violence against Americans. Iraq, worried that it will unleash a backlash against all Christians, has beefed up security near churches.
International police organization Interpol warned its 188 member countries that “there will be tragic consequences” and a “strong likelihood” of violent attacks if the burning happens.
Pastor Terry Jones, of the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., has vowed to go ahead with the bonfire on Saturday, even though he has been denied the required permit.
Local officials in Mahmud Raqi, the capital of Afghanistan’s Kapisa province, estimated that up to 4,000 people took part in today’s demonstration. But NATO spokesman James Judge said the protesters numbered between 500 and 700.
“The Afghan national police prevented the protest from overwhelming an Afghan military outpost,” and dispersed the demonstration, he told The Associated Press.
A cleric in Afghanistan’s largely peaceful Balkh province also warned today that, if the burning goes ahead, a protest will be held in the provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif next Monday. Protesters could hurl stones at NATO-led troops stationed in the city — one of the country’s main centers of the Islamic teaching.
In the central Pakistani city of Multan, about 200 people marched and burned a U.S. flag.
“If Quran is burned it would be beginning of destruction of America,” read one English-language banner held up by the protesters, who chanted “Down with America!”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has denounced the planned burning and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said it could lead to attacks on international troops.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also warned of repercussions, saying the burning would “face reactions by the world’s Muslims as well as followers of other religions,” according to the official IRNA news agency.
In central Baghdad, security was increased around the Church of the Virgin Mary, with military vehicles blocking the entrance to the church and Iraqi soldiers standing guard. At two other churches in the capital, police cars were parked outside and armed officers were deployed.
Canon Andrew White, the chaplain of an Anglican church in Baghdad, said the Iraqi military had warned him that his church had been threatened.