Denmark seeks to avoid renewed cartoon uproar

Copenhagen, Denmark - Denmark's foreign minister met Wednesday with ambassadors from 17 Muslim countries in a move to avoid tensions ahead of the five-year anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons.

The drawings first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on Sept. 30, 2005, and sparked fiery protests in Muslim countries four months later.

Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.

Denmark has remained a target of extremists ever since. Police say they have thwarted a series of terror plots against the newspaper and the creator of the most controversial cartoon, which showed Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.

Foreign Minister Lene Espersen said she met with the Muslim ambassadors Wednesday and with the heads of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League last week "to prevent a new confrontation" over the cartoons.

"My key message is that we have freedom of speech in Denmark," Espersen said in a statement. "Accordingly, anybody has the right to write and print books as long as the content is within the framework of the law.

"At the same time, I would like to make it very clear that Denmark wants to maintain and strengthen our good and friendly relations to the Muslim world."

Espersen said the government "respects all religious creeds and communities, including Islam as one of the world's major religions, and the religious feelings of all people."

Calls to the embassies seeking comment about the meeting were not immediately returned on Wednesday.

Flemming Rose, the newspaper editor who supervised the cartoon project, told reporters Wednesday he was surprised how offended many Muslims were by the 12 drawings.

"I didn't intend to offend or insult anybody," Rose said, adding that he stands by the decision to print the drawings.

Rose is releasing a book about the cartoon uproar in which he states that the purpose of the drawings was to test whether the cartoonists would apply self-censorship when asked to portray Muhammad. The cartoons are reprinted in his book.

Rose said the idea for the project came from reports that the illustrator of a Danish children's book on religion demanded anonymity because he feared retaliation for a drawing of the prophet.

The cartoon crisis escalated as the drawings were reprinted in a range of Western media, triggering massive protests from Morocco to Indonesia, and rioters torching Danish and other Western embassies and diplomatic missions.

Denmark's government distanced itself from the cartoons but doggedly resisted calls to apologize to Muslims, citing the freedom of speech and saying the government could not be held responsible for the actions of Denmark's free press.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Klavs Holm said Danish embassies abroad were "more on their toes than usual" this week but had not received any threats.

"We are alert but not alarmed," Holm said.