BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Hezbollah made a rare public appearance Monday at a rally in Beirut, calling for sustained protests against an anti-Islam film that already has provoked a week of unrest in Muslim countries worldwide.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has rarely been seen in public since his Shiite Muslim group battled Israel in a month-long war in 2006, fearing Israeli assassination. Since then, he has communicated with his followers and gives news conference mostly via satellite link.
On Monday, Nasrallah spoke for about 15 minutes before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, many of them with green and yellow headbands around their foreheads — the colors of Hezbollah — and the words "at your service God's prophet" written on them.
"This is the start of a serious movement that must continue all over the Muslim world in defense of the prophet of God," he said to roars of support. "As long as there's blood in us, we will not remain silent over insults against our prophet."
Nasrallah last appeared in public in December 2011 to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashoura. But he spoke only briefly and did not give a full speech.
He has called for a series of demonstrations this week to denounce the video.
Hezbollah's rallies seem aimed at keeping the issue alive by bringing out large crowds. But the group also appeared to be trying to ensure it did not spiral into violence, walking a careful line. Notably, Hezbollah held Monday's protest in its own mainly Shiite stronghold of Dahieh in south Beirut, far from the U.S. Embassy in the mountains north of the capital or other international diplomatic missions.
For the group, anger over the low-budget movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad provides a welcome diversion from the crisis in Syria, which has brought heavy criticism on Hezbollah for its support of President Bashar Assad. But stoking riots in Beirut could also bring a backlash in the tensely divided country.
The movie portrays Islam's Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester. Protesters have directed their anger at the U.S. government, insisting it should do something to stop it, though the film was privately produced. American officials have criticized it for intentionally offending Muslims — and in one case, acted to prevent it being shown at a Florida church.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.