BEIRUT -- The head of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement appeared Monday at a massive rally assailing the United States and warning that broadcast of a film produced in California mocking Islam could have grave consequences.
“America must understand that releasing the entire film will have dangerous, very dangerous repercussions around the world,” an emotional Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, told supporters gathered in a Beirut suburb.
The appearance suggested that Hezbollah, an influential political and military force in Lebanon, is determined to place itself in the vanguard of global Muslim outrage against the incendiary film.
Monday’s anti-U.S. rally here was among a string of demonstrations in Muslim communities, from Tunis to Jakarta, following the release on the Internet of a trailer for the amateur, privately produced film, which ridicules the prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith.
Tens of thousands of pro-Hezbollah supporters attended the rally in the Dahiyeh district, a stronghold of the group.
The rally was boisterous but peaceful and occurred far from the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy. Demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world have targeted U.S. diplomatic missions.
The participation of Nasrallah, who is seldom seen in public, reportedly because he fears assassination, underscored Hezbollah’s apparent determination to use the outrage over the film to bolster its standing as a moral force in the Arab world. The group’s strong backing of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is battling an uprising, has cost it considerable support among Arabs.
On Sunday, a Hezbollah-controlled television station, Al Manar, reported that Nasrallah regarded the issue of the film as “more serious than what’s going on in Syria” — a position disputed by Syrians and others who say Assad's forces have killed of thousands of civilians.
Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group with close ties to Iran, a predominately Shiite nation, and to Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, a Shiite offshoot. Most Syrians are members of the far more populous Sunni branch of Islam.
While deeply divided on the issue of Syria, Sunni and Shiite groups have both condemned the film.
During Monday’s rally, Nasrallah demanded that the United States and the international community block release of the full film. He insisted that the trailer should no longer be available on the Internet and called for a boycott of websites that show it.
In his comments Sunday, the Hezbollah chief dismissed as “hypocrisy, deception and double standards” the Western arguments that blocking the video would violate freedom of speech. He called for “an international resolution criminalizing the defamation of heavenly religions.”
The U.S. classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah says it leads the global resistance to Israel.
While anti-U.S. protests focusing on the film erupted last week, Hezbollah held off on its public broadsides until the end of a three-day visit to Lebanon by Pope Benedict XVI, who left Beirut on Sunday evening. Nasrallah lauded the pope’s visit as “historic and extraordinary,” and Hezbollah members participated in festivities associated with the visit.
More Hezbollah-organized rallies denouncing the United States and the video are scheduled for this week elsewhere in Lebanon.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks to a crowd during a rally in suburban Beirut denouncing an anti-Islam film. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press.