Incoming NATO chief: Confront religious prejudice

Istanbul, Turkey - The incoming head of NATO called on Monday for a balance between free speech and respect for religious feelings after a dispute over his support for the right to caricature the Prophet Muhammad had threatened his appointment.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who overcame objections from Turkey about his suitability for the alliance top job, said he will pay close attention to religious sensibilities when he becomes NATO secretary-general in August. His stance over the caricatures had angered Muslims around the world.

"I would never myself depict any religious figure, including the Prophet Muhammad, in a way that could hurt other people's feelings," the former Danish prime minister said at a conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

"I respect Islam as one of the world's major religions," said Fogh Rasmussen, wearing a sling after dislocating his shoulder in an accident earlier Monday.

In 2005, twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

The drawings triggered massive protests from Morocco to Indonesia in early 2006, and rioters torched Danish and other Western embassies and diplomatic missions. Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.

Throughout the crisis, Fogh Rasmussen distanced himself from the cartoons but resisted calls to apologize for them, citing freedom of speech and saying his government could not be held responsible for the actions of Denmark's free press.

"My position was clear before, during and after the crisis," Fogh Rasmussen said.

In his speech to the Alliance of Civilizations, a forum sponsored by Turkey and Spain to promote understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds, Fogh Rasmussen said prejudice must be confronted.

He said dialogue between cultures and religions should be "based on mutual respect and understanding" and that all kinds of censorship hamper that process.

"That's exactly the balance that we have to strike," he said, referring to free speech and respect for religions.

On another contentious issue, Fogh Rasmussen said Denmark was continuing a four-year investigation of Turkish claims that Copenhagen-based Roj TV has ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The rebel group has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984 and is considered by Denmark and other Western countries to be a terrorist organization.

"If sufficient evidence is provided, we will of course do all we can to close this television station," Fogh Rasmussen said. "I do hope that the work can be concluded as soon as possible, but it's up to the public prosecutor to decide."

The station has its newsroom and production facilities in Belgium, but transmits its satellite signal to Kurdish viewers via Denmark because it does not have a Belgian broadcasting license. Danish-Turkish relations have long been strained over Kurdish groups based in Denmark.

Turkey's Dogan news agency reported that Fogh Rasmussen was injured in his hotel.

"I had a small accident in my room," said the former Danish prime minister. He joked that he appeared "in a condition which might give you a wrong impression of the character of my new job."