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Protests in Lebanon remain restrained

In Lebanon, protests against the anti-Islam film remain limited - in part due to a consensus not to disrupt the visit by Pope Benedict.

Tripoli, the second largest Lebanese city, is a social hot spot. For decades, the city in the north of the country has been neglected by the government in Beirut. At the same time, Tripoli is a melting pot of different Islamist groups.

There are fights between members of two enemy slums, Jabal Muhsin and Bab Al-Tabbane. It's a conflict rooted in the two slums supporting opposite sides in neighboring Syria's civil war. Jabal Mushin largely stands behind the Damascus regime, while Bab Al-Tabbane tends to support the opposition.

It then hardly comes as a surprise that the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" has triggered violent clashes in Tripoli's slums. After Friday prayers, an angry mob moved towards the city center and set branches of several American fast food restaurant chains on fire.

Protesters were waving black flags, a symbol of Salafist groups. They then moved on towards the mayor's office and surrounded the building. It was only when the Lebanese army intervened that the rioters eventually gave up.

Lebanese protesters attack American fast food restaurants (picture: AP)

There were only a few scenes like this one in Lebanon, where protesters set fire to US fast food restaurants

According to the Lebanese newspaper "as-Safir" the soldiers fired shots into the air and used tear gas. One man died in the riots. Lebanese media estimated that some 300 people were involved in the clashes.

Anti-American slogans

One of the first in Lebanon to have called for protests against the US-produced Muhammad film was Salafist sheikh Ahmad al-Assir from Sidon. The conservative Sunni leader called on his followers to join him in a sit-in outside his mosque in Sidon's east neighborhood Abra.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir called on his followers to protest against the film

But few people turned up - some 250, mostly men, gathered outside the small mosque in the well-off residential area. In his speech, Ahmad al-Assir accused "Zionists" of having produced the film. According to him, the movie had been produced with the intention to stir hatred between Muslims and Christians. After the speech, the sheik's supporters burnt the flags of the US and Israel, and then the gathering was dissolved.

In another part of Sidon, in the Palestinian camp of Ain el-Helweh, groups of men also protested against the film after Friday prayers and held up posters with anti-American and anti-Israel slogans. A small group of people also gathered in the town of Taalabaya in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon's east in protest against the film.

Pope's visit guarantees security

But compared to other parts of the Muslim world, protests against the Mohammad film remained small in Lebanon. Six years ago, the Mohammad cartoons published in a Danish newspaper had triggered by far heavier protests.

This week, the situation remained fairly calm - not least because Pope Benedict XVI was visiting. On Friday, the leader of the Catholic Church arrived for a three-day visit to Lebanon. Safety measures were high, with thousands of soldiers and police patrolling the roads.

Pope Benedict XVI (picture: Stefano Rellandini/ Reuters)

Religious and political leaders urged not to disrupt the Pope's visit

There was general consensus among the country's political parties not to disrupt the Pope's visit. Lebanese top politicians were united in welcoming the papal visit, and high-ranking religious and political representatives had made their positions public well in advance. Just as unanimously, representatives from all religions and all political camps condemned the Muhammad film.

There were of course also a few preachers who used Friday prayers to incite their audience, like in Tripoli or in Sidon. But many also called to show constraint. One of them was the leader of the Sunni in Lebanon, Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, who called on Christians and Muslims to demonstrate unity.

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