ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s “Day of Love for the Prophet” turned into a deadly day of gunfire, tear gas and arson.
Thousands angered by an anti-Muslim film ignored pleas for peaceful rallies and rampaged in several Pakistani cities Friday in battles with police that killed 19 people and touched off criticism of a government decision to declare a national holiday to proclaim devotion for the Prophet Muhammad.
The film, which was produced in the United States and denigrates the prophet, has outraged many in the Muslim world in the 10 days since it attracted attention on the Internet, and there were new, mostly peaceful protest marches in a half-dozen countries from Asia to the Middle East.
But it is Pakistan that has seen the most sustained violence, driven by a deep well of anti-American sentiment and a strong cadre of hard-line Islamists who benefit from stoking anger at the U.S.
At least 49 people – including the U.S. ambassador to Libya – have died in violence linked to the film around the world.
Analysts accused the Pakistani government of pandering to these extremists by declaring Friday to be an official holiday – calling it a “Day of Love for the Prophet.” Officials urged peaceful protests, but critics said the move helped unleash the worst violence yet caused by the film, titled “Innocence of Muslims.”
In addition to those killed, nearly 200 others were injured as mobs threw stones and set fire to cars and movie theaters, and battled with police who responded with tear gas and gunfire.
Police fired tear gas and live ammunition to push back the tens of thousands of protesters they faced in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and the major cities of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. They were successful in preventing the protesters from reaching U.S. diplomatic offices in the cities, even though the demonstrators streamed over shipping containers set up on major roads to block their path.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked the Pakistani government for protecting the U.S. missions in the country and lamented the deaths in the protests.