Arab media coverage of pope's death infuriates Islamists

Dubai, UAE - The Arab world's leading satellite television channels have been giving unprecedented coverage of the death throes of Pope John Paul II, provoking anger from Islamic extremists.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, famed for screening "exclusive" videotapes from Islamic militants including Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was among the first to announce the pope's death.

On Sunday it continued providing widespread coverage of his life and death, as did Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, as well as preparations for his funeral after in-depth coverage of his last days.

Both Al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya transmitted live from the Vatican over the past few days, with blow-by-blow accounts from their correspondents at the Vatican, in Rome and at holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The two stations, along with many others throughout the Arab world, aired several documentaries about John Paul II and his various appeals for peace and dialogue between all faiths and civilisations.

They also highlighted images of the pope during his historic visit to the Palestinian territories and Israel in March 2000 when he was warmly welcomed at the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheishe, near Jesus's traditional birthplace of Bethlehem in the West Bank.

The pope had often called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work together for peace in the Middle East.

Arabs throughout the region assiduously followed the pope's numerous initiatives, including his unrealised desire to go to Iraq before the US-led invasion in March 2003 to see how Iraqis suffered under international sanctions.

Radical Islamists however, who advocate the expulsion of non-Muslims from Islamic countries, have been using Islamist websites to vent their anger at Arab television stations for according the pope such importance.

One such user lashed out at Al-Jazeera, saying viewers were "annoyed" with extensive reports eulogising the pope, who the user described as an "old tyrant".

"What is mortifying is that this hooligan channel pretends (to defend) Islam," added the user, who wrote under the name Muhib al-Salihine on the Islamic News Network, a site often used by Islamist militants operating in Iraq.

"What is more humiliating -- I think that it was Al-Arabiya channel -- is that the imam of a mosque... praised the memory (of the pope)," said Seri Eddine le Libyen on the same site.

"I have started to hate Al-Jazeera for the multiplicity of information on the grieving" for the pope, said another user.

In Lebanon, the Al-Manar satellite television of the Shiite fundamentalist movement Hezbollah, interrupted its programmes after the announcement of the pope's death to broadcast live from the Vatican.

Four other private Lebanese stations and the public Tele-Liban did the same.

In Iraq, the public television station Iraqiya also interrupted programming on Saturday night to announce the pope's death.