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Leaders Hail Muslim Prophet, Assail West At Huge Chechnya Rally


A huge crowd turned out in the capital of Russia's tightly controlled, mostly Muslim Chechnya region for a state-sponsored demonstration against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader assailed the West in speeches at a rally the Interior Ministry said drew 800,000 people, suggesting that moral flaws were the root cause of the Islamist militant attacks in Paris last week and that Western governments are fanning Muslim anger for their own geopolitical gain.

"This is a protest against those who try to insult the religious feelings of Muslims all over the world. This is a protest against those who deliberately incite a worldwide fire of religious and ethnic hatred," Ramzan Kadyrov, who faces sanctions in the West over rights abuses, told the rally.

The massive gathering outside Chechnya's main mosque was an organized Russian response to the January 7 attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which the assailants said was revenge for its caricatures of Muhammad, and the free-speech debate that has ensued.

Kadyrov said "Europe has not drawn the right lessons" from the Paris attacks.

"Instead of condemning those who opened fire, and those who with their cartoon were the reason for that, the French authorities organized a street show with slogans in support of the permissiveness that led to the bloodshed."

"It was attended by presidents, prime ministers, and royals," he said, referring to rallies in France that drew more than 3 million people on January 11 in a demonstration of solidarity with the victims of the attacks and support for freedom of speech.

"This gives us a legal right to say that it is the Western powers and intelligence services that may stand behind the incident with the cartoons, interested in triggering a new wave of ISIL recruits of thousands of deceived young people from around the world," Kadyrov said.

PHOTO GALLERY: Views of the massive rally

Echoing President Vladimir Putin's claims that the West has sought to use Islamist militants to weaken Russia, Kadyrov said the rally would "announce to the entire world that Muslims will never let ourselves be used to shake up the situation in this country."

"We have always been reliable defenders of Russia," Kadyrov, who said recently that he considers anyone who supports Charlie Hebdo's right to publish cartoons of Muhammad his "personal enemy," told the crowd.

Many demonstrators held uniform signs featuring a crimson heart with "Muhammad" written in Arabic and the words "We Love Our Prophet" in Chechen, Russian, and English. Young boys wore baseball caps that also said "Muhammad" in Arabic.

Red balloons sailed into the sky near the huge Grozny mosque, the jewel of the lavishly funded reconstruction of a city that was devastated in two post-Soviet wars pitting the Kremlin against Chechen separatists.

Mostly Orthodox Christian Russia has a large Muslim minority and is struggling to contain North Caucasus-based Islamist insurgency stemming from the wars in Chechnya.

On January 16, Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned national media against publishing caricatures on religious topics, saying they may be illegal if they are "offensive and humiliating" to followers of different faiths and incite "ethnic and religious discord."

In Grozny, other leaders echoed Kadyrov in speeches to the crowd at one of the biggest rallies anywhere in Russia in recent years. Critics of the Kremlin and Kadyrov say they use their power over students, state workers, and other vulnerable sectors of the population to gather crowds at pro-goverment rallies.

"We must tell the whole world: We love the Prophet Muhammad and will not allow anyone to offend the religious sensitivities of Muslims," the Grand Mufti of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin, told the crowd in remarks broadcast live on state TV.

Gainutdin also criticized terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist militants. But like Kadyrov, he targeted the West for criticism, suggesting its governments undermine religious values and criticizing nations that allow same-sex marriage.

Non-Muslim clerics also took part in a show of unity, and one speaker led a chant of "Muhammad and Jesus!"

"The entire Russian Orthodox Church condemns people who make caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad," said Bishop Varlaam, the regional head of the Russian Orthodox Church. We...say 'no' to the evil that the West is trying to sow between our religions."

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters
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