|France to close embassies in 20 countries||
"We have indeed decided as a precautionary measure to close our premises, embassies, consulates, cultural centers and schools," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said of the shut-down on Friday, prayer day across the Muslim world.
Before publishing the cartoons on Wednesday, French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, renowned for its irreverent treatment of the political establishment and public figures, argued that it had the right to uphold that tradition.
"We do caricatures of everyone, and above all every week, and when we do it with the Prophet, it's called provocation," the paper's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, told the news channel i>TELE.
Issues of the magazine hit newsstands with the front cover and inside pages depicting the cartoons, a move criticized by the French authorities, which sent riot police to protect the magazine's offices.
The publication came amid widespread outrage over a short film, made with private funds in the United States, that mocks the Prophet and has ignited days of sometimes deadly protests in the Arab world, Africa, Asia and some Western countries.
Muslim leaders in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population, have appealed for calm.
Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices were fire bombed last November after it published a mocking caricature of Muhammad. In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people.
Most Muslims consider any representation of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad offensive.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticized the move as a provocation and said he had ordered security beefed up at French diplomatic offices in the Muslim world.
"Is it relevant and intelligent in this environment to add fuel to the fire? The answer is no," Fabius told France Info radio. "I'm very worried... and when I saw this I immediately issued instructions for special security precautions to be taken in all the countries where it could be a problem."
The government has called for restraint over the cartoons, restating the principles of free speech in France and urging those shocked by the images to take action through the courts.
As outrage over the anti-Muslim film continues to fuel violence and protests across the Islamic world, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the authorities had rejected a request to hold a march against the 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 unauthorized protest near the US Embassy in Paris last week.
The main body representing Muslims in France, the French Muslim Council (CFCM), accused Charlie Hebdo of firing up anti-Muslim sentiment at a sensitive time.
"The CFCM is deeply attached to freedom of speech but considers that nothing can justify insult and inciting hatred," it said in a statement.
"The CFCM calls on the Muslims of France not to give in to such provocation and urges them to express their indignation calmly and in lawful manner."
Former Charlie Hebdo editor Philippe Val was pursued in French courts on charges of racial injury, and ultimately acquitted, after the paper reprinted the Danish cartoons of Mohammad.
(Source: The Daily Star)
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