A French magazine ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad on Wednesday by portraying him naked in cartoons, threatening to fuel the anger of Muslims around the world who are already incensed by a film depicting him as a womanizing buffoon.
The French government, which had urged the magazine not to print the images, said it was temporarily shutting down premises including embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday, when protests sometimes break out after Muslim prayers.
Riot police were deployed to protect the Paris offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo after it hit the news stands with a cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing the turbaned figure of Mohammad in a wheelchair. On the inside pages, several caricatures of the Prophet showed him naked.
Reacting to the publication, Essam Erian, acting head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Reuters: "We reject and condemn the French cartoons that dishonour the Prophet and we condemn any action that defames the sacred according to people's beliefs."
Calling for a U.N. treaty against insulting religion, he added: "We condemn violence and say that peaceful protests are a right for everyone. I hope there will be a popular western and French reaction condemning this."
The posting of a short film on You Tube last week that mocked Mohammad as a lecherous fool has sparked sometimes deadly protests in many countries.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi, and U.S. and other foreign embassies were stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by furious Muslims. Afghan militants said a suicide bombing that killed 12 people on Tuesday was carried out in retaliation for the film.
One of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, entitled "Mohammad: a star is born", depicted a bearded figure crouching over to display naked buttocks and genitals, a star covering his anus.
A second cartoon, in reference to the scandal over a French magazine's decision to publish topless photos of the wife of Britain's Prince William, showed a topless, bearded character with the caption: "Riots in Arab countries after photos of Mrs Mohammad are published."
"We have the impression that it's officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists," Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, who drew the front-page cartoon, said.
"It shows the climate - everyone is driven by fear, and that is exactly what this small handful of extremists who do not represent anyone want - to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave," he told Reuters.
BEEFED UP SECURITY
Many Muslims consider any representation of Allah or the Prophet Mohammad offensive.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticised the magazine's move as a provocation.
"We saw what happened last week in Libya and in other countries such as Afghanistan," Fabius told a regular government news conference. "We have to call on all to behave responsibly."
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said France was closing its embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools in 20 countries on Friday as a "precautionary measure".
Charlie Hebdo has a long reputation for being provocative. Its Paris offices were firebombed last November after it published a mocking caricature of Mohammad.
In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people.
The French Muslim Council, the main body representing Muslims in France, accused Charlie Hebdo of firing up anti-Muslim sentiment at a sensitive time.
"The CFCM is profoundly worried by this irresponsible act, which in such a fraught climate risks further exacerbating tensions and sparking damaging reactions," it said.
Richard Prasquier, head of the body representing France's Jewish community - Europe's largest - said religious censorship was wrong but added: "Publishing Mohammad cartoons at this time, in the name of freedom, is irresponsible".
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the authorities had rejected a request to hold a march against the Mohammad film in Paris.
"There is no reason for us to allow conflicts that do not concern France to enter our country," Ayrault told RTL radio.
Social media had circulated calls for a protest on Saturday against the film, after police arrested about 150 people who tried to take part in an unauthorised protest near the U.S. Embassy in Paris last week.
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