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Mohammed cartoons inflame Middle East

Many European newspapers published caricatures this week of the Muslim prophet, refusing to bend to Islamic law's demand that no image of him should be made.

Associated Press
Published February 3, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Armed militants angered by a cartoon drawing of the prophet Mohammed published in European newspapers surrounded EU offices in Gaza on Thursday and threatened to kidnap foreigners as outrage over the caricatures spread across the Islamic world.

More than 300 students demonstrated in Pakistan, chanting "Death to France!" and "Death to Denmark!" - two of the countries where newspapers published the drawings. Other protests were held in Syria and Lebanon.

The cartoons were first published in September in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which asked 40 cartoonists to draw images of Mohammed. The purpose, its chief editor said, was "to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship, as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues."

Officials in Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia condemned the publication. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called the cartoons an "insult . . . to more than 1-billion Muslims."

Foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers began leaving Gaza as gunmen there threatened to kidnap citizens of France, Norway, Denmark and Germany unless those governments apologized for the cartoon.

Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank searched several hotels, and a German citizen was briefly kidnapped by gunmen from a hotel in the city of Nablus. Palestinian police freed the German, a teacher, after less than an hour.

Militants in Gaza said they would shut down media offices from France, Norway, Denmark and Germany, singling out the French news agency Agence France-Presse.

The issue opened divisions among European Union governments. Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said EU leaders have a responsibility to "clearly condemn" insults to any religion. But French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said he preferred "an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship."

Sarkozy joined journalists in rallying around the editorial director of France Soir, who was fired by the newspaper's owner, an Egyptian-born Catholic named Raymond Lakah. France Soir and other newspapers across Europe reprinted the caricatures this week in a show of support for freedom of expression.

France's grand rabbi Joseph Sitruk said he shared Muslim anger.

"We gain nothing by lowering religions, humiliating them and making caricatures of them. It's a lack of honesty and respect," he said.

In Israel, the newspaper Maariv published one caricature Thursday on page 16.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, visited a Gaza church Thursday and promised protection to Christians after Fatah gunmen threatened to target churches as part of their protests.

"You are our brothers," Zahar told Father Manuel Musallam of the Holy Family Church.


Islamic law, based on clerics' interpretation of the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Mohammed, forbids his depictions, even positive ones. Violations by Muslims are seen as highly sinful and by non-Muslims as the ultimate sort of insult.

The prohibition is in part an application of the Koran's strict opposition to idolatry and the worship of a physical object as a god, including any hint of such devotion toward the faith's revered human prophet.

In the Koran, "shirk" (Arabic for "partnering" or "associating" anything with God) is the one unforgivable sin: "God does not forgive the joining of partners with him: Anything less than that he forgives to whoever he will, but anyone who joins partners with God is lying and committing a tremendous sin" (4:48).

The Koran does not specifically address artwork of Mohammed, but the ban has been virtually universal in all branches of the faith from its earliest days. The rule extends to artwork showing others regarded as prophets by Islam, including Jesus, even though Christians have often visualized their divine savior in paintings, statutes and films.

[Last modified February 3, 2006, 01:25:14]

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