Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the centre of Grozny, the capital of Russia’s Muslim North Caucasus region of Chechnya, for a mammoth state-sponsored demonstration against blasphemous caricatures.
An AFP journalist at the event put the attendance figure at several hundred thousand, while authorities in the tightly controlled region said more than one million people — almost the entire population of the republic — took part in the rally.
“This is a protest against those who support the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed,” Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist since being installed by President Vladimir Putin a decade ago, told the demonstrators.
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Kadyrov has turned Chechnya, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed in two Kremlin wars to crush a separatist movement, into a showcase of loyalty to Putin.
Kadyrov attacked the French government for backing Charlie Hebdo magazine’s right to run a Mohammed cartoon on its front cover a week after two Islamist gunmen — saying they were avenging the publication of previous Mohammed caricatures — massacred 12 people in an attack on its office in Paris.
“We say firmly that we will never allow anyone to go unpunished for insulting the name of the prophet and our religion,” Kadyrov said.
Demonstrators chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and released balloons into the sky at the highly choreographed event, as speakers harangued Western governments’ argument that printing caricatures of Islam’s prophet is a matter of free speech.
Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoon shows the prophet with a tear in his eye, under the headline “All is forgiven”. He also holds a sign reading “Je suis Charlie”, the slogan that has become a global rallying cry for those expressing sympathy for the victims and support for freedom of speech.
In France President Francois Hollande insisted his country “insults no-one when we defend our ideas, when we proclaim freedom”.
“France does not preach to any country, but France does not accept intolerance… the French flag is still one of freedom,” he said in Paris.
Authorities in Chechnya, which has a total population of around 1.25 million, said they had appealed for believers to come from all around the North Caucasus region.
Human rights activists say crowds at pro-Kremlin rallies are often boosted by large numbers of students and workers ordered to attend by state-run institutions.
Although Russia’s leadership extended its condolences to France after 17 people were killed in three days of Islamist attacks, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated in a subsequent unity march held in Paris, pro-Kremlin commentators and Muslims accused the cartoonists of provoking the attack.
The media watchdog in Russia — which is at loggerheads with the West over the crisis in Ukraine — on Friday warned publications that printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed was against the country’s laws and ethical norms.
– Flags burned, France threatened –
Elsewhere, hundreds of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrated against Charlie Hebdo, burning French flags and calling for the government to cut diplomatic relations with France.
Demonstrators in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad chanted anti-France slogans and vowed to defend Islam.
“I call on the Afghan government and other Islamic countries to cut off their diplomatic ties with France,” 25-year-old protester Matiullah Ahmadzai told AFP.
“We want the French embassy in Kabul closed. France should apologise to Muslim countries,” he said.
In neighbouring Pakistan, five protests were held in the northwestern city of Peshawar and one in the southern port city of Karachi.
More than 2,000 Iranians protested outside the French embassy in Tehran, chanting “Death to France”, with female protesters segregated from the males.
In Gaza, around 200 radical Islamists — brandishing black jihadist banners — threatened attacks against France.
“French, leave Gaza or we will slaughter you,” the crowd chanted in front of the French cultural centre.
Niger meanwhile declared three days of mourning from Monday after violent protests left 10 people dead and dozens of churches torched- AFP