A dozen caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, originally published in a Danish newspaper in September and recently reprinted in six other European countries, have sparked protests and an expanding Muslim boycott of Danish goods.
Aside from the fact that one of the cartoons depicted Mohammad as a terrorist, Muslims consider any depiction of the seventh century figure to be blasphemous.
Attacks on Iraqi Christians
A British-based advocacy group that monitors Christians living in the Muslim world released a statement on Thursday saying that the beating of Christian students and the bombing of at least four churches in Iraq on Sunday could be linked to protests over the cartoons.
Muslim students beat Christian students at Mosul University on Sunday. Several days earlier, sheiks in the city had issued a number of fatwas (Islamic religious decrees) calling for Muslims to "expel the crusaders and infidels form the streets, schools and institutions because they insulted the person of the prophet in Denmark," the Barnabus Fund said in a press release.
In separate incidents on the same day, at least three people were killed and more than a dozen injured in near-simultaneous bombings outside at least four churches in Iraq. The attacks apparently were timed to happen during worship services.
"Many Christians in Iraq are connecting this week's church bombings with the growing furor across the Muslim world caused by the publication of some cartoons caricaturing Mohammad in a Danish newspaper on 30th September 2005," the Barnabus Fund said.
Churches in Iraq have been attacked previously, but some Christians believe that this new wave of attacks was ignited by the by the issue of the cartoons, one source said.
A Kuwaiti newspaper reported on Wednesday that Islamic cleric Sheikh Nazem Mesbah issued a fatwa calling for people who insulted Mohammed to be killed, but the fatwa reportedly was rejected by other Islamic clerics.
In another development, an al-Qaeda-affilitated group Abu Hafez al-Masri Brigades reacted to the cartoons by threatening "blood war" on Denmark.
In a message sent to the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi on Wednesday, the group threatened to carry out September 11-type attacks on Denmark, the Israeli website YNet reported on Thursday.
A number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, have recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen in protest.
Palestinians jump on cartoon bandwagon
In the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Palestinian gunmen surrounded the office of the European Union, firing guns into the air and demanding an apology for the cartoons within 48 hours.
A spokesman for the two groups -- Islamic Jihad and the Yasser Arafat brigade of the Fatah faction -- said they would keep the E.U. offices closed "until the government makes an apology."
One European Union source said the office was closed on Monday anyway, following the first protest outside the building earlier this week.
Two other Palestinian militant groups, the Popular Resistance Committee and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, threatened to harm all nationals and diplomats of countries involved in the controversy.
In a joint statement the groups said the diplomats and nationals "can be considered targets."
A spokesman for the two groups said the threat was serious. The statement demanded that the offices and consulates of the countries involved be closed -- "Otherwise, we will not hesitate to destroy them."
European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said security measures had been taken following the threats but she did not offer details.
"We support the freedom of expression but respect [the differences] between cultures," Udwin said.
Speaking by phone from Brussels, Udwin said she had not been authorized to make any apology but stressed that those who profit from newspapers where the cartoons were printed do so in their own name and are not government organs.
"Europeans in the region are generally there to improve the living conditions of Palestinians," said Udwin. "Those who make threats should bear that in mind," she added.
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