MOSCOW—Hundreds of thousands rallied in the capital of Chechnya on Monday after the Kremlin-backed leader there declared a holiday to denounce the French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
Russia’s Interior Ministry said more than 800,000 people from the mainly Muslim republics along its southern rim joined the rally in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Though Russian officials often overestimate numbers at such events, media images of the crowd showed what looked like hundreds of thousands of people packing the city center.
Members of Russia’s Orthodox clergy joined the march, denouncing the West for “trying to sow discord between our religions,” Russian state-controlled news agencies said. Others carried signs reading “Hands off the Prophet Muhammad” in a rally billed as a “love for the Prophet Muhammad” event.
The rally comes as the Kremlin is struggling to calm Islamist sentiment within its borders that it fears could become radicalized by the rise of the extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Although Moscow sent its foreign minister to Paris to join a solidarity march in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Kremlin has made it clear that no similar satire of Islam would be allowed in Russia.
Some of the Chechen protesters Monday carried signs reading "Hands off the Prophet Muhammad," Addressing the crowd, Kadyrov declared “If needed, we are ready to die to stop anyone who thinks that you can irresponsibly defile the name of the Prophet."
He accused European journalists and politicians of proclaiming "the freedom to be vulgar, rude and insult the religious feelings of hundreds of millions of believers" under what he called "false slogans about freedom of speech and democracy."
The Chechen leader also told the crowds it was possible that "the authorities and special services of Western countries" were behind the Paris attacks as a way to "spark a new wave" of recruiting for the Islamic State group. In October, Kadyrov alleged that IS was acting "on orders from the West and deliberately exterminating Muslims."
Two days after the killings in Paris, Kadyrov accused the chief editor of a liberal radio station of inciting anti-Muslim hatred after its website asked readers to vote on whether publications should print caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Kadyrov, who fought on the side of Chechen separatists in the 1990, is now one of Mr. Putin's most vigorous supporters. The Kremlin leader appointed Kadyrov president of Chechnya in 2007. Since then he has ruled Chechnya with an iron hand, and also has been accused of widespread human rights violations.
While he has fought against radical Islamist insurgents in the region, the Chechen leader has adopted some Islamic customs as laws. Among these is order a requirement that women must wear headscarves in public.