French cartoons inflame tensions over prophet film

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PARIS (AP) — A French magazine published vulgar caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on Wednesday, inflaming global tensions over a movie insulting to Islam and prompting France to step up security at embassies.

The move by provocative weekly Charlie Hebdo followed days of violent protests from Asia to Africa against the U.S.-produced film “Innocence of Muslims” and turned France into a potential target, too. Up to now, American government sites have drawn the most ire.

Violence linked to the amateurish movie, which portrays the prophet as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester, has killed at least 30 people in seven countries, including the American ambassador to Libya.

On Wednesday, several hundred lawyers protesting the movie forced their way into an area in Pakistan’s capital that houses the U.S. Embassy and other foreign missions. The United States temporarily closed its consulate in an Indonesian city because of similar demonstrations, and hundreds protested the film in Sri Lanka’s capital and burned effigies of President Obama.

The French government ordered embassies and schools abroad to close on Friday, the Muslim holy day, as a precautionary measure. It ordered the immediate closure of the French Embassy and the French school in Tunisia, which saw deadly film-related protests at the U.S. Embassy on Friday.

The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning Wednesday urging French citizens in the Muslim world to exercise “the greatest vigilance,” avoiding public gatherings and “sensitive buildings” such as those representing the West or religious sites.

At the same time, the country — which has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population — plunged into new debate over the limits to free speech in a modern democracy.

France‘s prime minister said freedom of expression is guaranteed, but he cautioned that it “should be exercised with responsibility and respect.”

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that Charlie Hebdo could be throwing “oil on the fire” but said it’s up to courts to decide whether the magazine went too far.

The magazine’s crude cartoons played off the film and ridiculed the violent reaction to it. Riot police took up positions outside the offices of the magazine, which was firebombed last year after it released an edition that mocked radical Islam.

Charlie Hebdo’s chief editor, who goes by the name of Charb and has been under police protection for a year, defended the cartoons.

“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he said in an interview at the weekly’s offices, on the northeast edge of Paris amid a cluster of housing projects. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law; I don’t live under Quranic law.”

Government authorities and Muslim leaders urged calm.

“This is a disgraceful and hateful, useless and stupid provocation,” Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Paris Mosque, told the Associated Press. “We are not Pavlov’s animals to react at each insult.”

A small-circulation weekly, Charlie Hebdo often draws attention for ridiculing sensitivity around the Prophet Muhammad, and an investigation into the firebombing of its offices last year is still open. The magazine posted a statement online saying its website had been hacked.

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