Saudi cleric wants Danish paper punished for cartoons

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia's top cleric has called on Denmark to punish a newspaper that ran cartoons portraying Prophet Mohammad, weighing into a row that has been raging across the Middle East for months.

Denmark's largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, ran 12 cartoons last September, including one in which Mohammad seems to be carrying a bomb in his turban. Islam considers images of prophets disrespectful and caricatures blasphemous.

"I call on officials in the Danish government to call to account the paper that published these cartoons and force it to apologise for its ugly crime," Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said in a statement published on Wednesday.

"It should impose a penalty as a deterrent on those who took part in provoking this subject. That's the least Muslims demand," it said.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the state-appointed Sheikh is considered by many Sunni Muslims as one of the faith's leading authorities.

The Danish government appeared to have diffused the row with a New Year address by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen which defended free speech but urged Danes to exercise the right without inciting hatred against Muslims.

But mobile phone text messages circulating in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks have called on Saudis to boycott Danish products.

The Danish ambassador in Riyadh issued a statement last week saying Denmark respects Islam and stating that the paper publishing the pictures is independent of the government.

Arab foreign ministers in December condemned the Danish government for not acting against the newspaper.

Saudi Arabia's powerful religious establishment has backed the government in a propaganda war against Islamist militants who launched a campaign in 2003 to bring down the U.S.-allied monarchy, the world's biggest oil producer.

The mini-insurgency, which has often targeted foreign residents, has largely run out of steam over the past year.

But anti-Western sentiment is high over regional issues such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and efforts to curb a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.