Nigeria's Christians back Muslims

Kaduna, Nigeria - An umbrella Nigerian Christian body based in the majority Muslim north has condemned the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The cartoons first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September and have sparked Muslim protests across the globe.

A leading Islamic cleric in Kaduna, which has previously had deadly religious riots, has also spoken about the insensitivity of printing them.

He called for calm in the city where security is tight at Friday prayers.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria have led to clashes leaving thousands dead in recent years.

Rev Joseph John Hayep, the secretary general of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said the publication was totally uncalled for at a time when the world was looking for unity.

On Thursday, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Arabic TV he was sorry for any offence caused but insisted his government was not responsible for newspaper articles.

Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, leader of Nigeria's Muslim Brothers, said the prime minister's words went some way to easing the situation.

More than 200 people died in religious clashes in Kaduna over the Miss World beauty contest in 2002.

The rioting was triggered by a newspaper article saying that the Prophet Muhammad might have approved of the contest and even chosen to marry one of the contestants.

The BBC's Adamu Yusuf in Kaduna says the city is calm and the cartoon row is not being widely discussed.

The cartoons' publication has also drawn strong criticism in other African countries.

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has issued a statement condemning the reproduction of the images by European newspaper editors, saying freedom of the press could not be used as an excuse.

The foreign minister of Sudan, where the ruling party has organised a boycott of Danish products, says the decision was "disappointing".

"Whatever religion, whether Islam, Christian or Jewish, we would never support anybody who talks negatively about other religions," Foreign Minister Lam Akol said during a visit to London.

One of the cartoons shows the Prophet wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb. In another he says paradise is running short of virgins for suicide bombers.

Islamic tradition bans depictions of the Prophet or Allah.

Mr Rasmussen has said the issue of the cartoons has gone beyond Denmark to become a clash between Western free speech and Islamic taboos.

The cartoons originated in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten paper and have been reprinted in newspapers in Germany, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain - saying they were exercising their right to free speech.

Jyllands-Posten has apologised for causing offence to Muslims, although it maintains it was legal under Danish law to print the cartoons.