POTSDAM, Germany (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to freedom of speech on Wednesday at a ceremony for a Dane whose cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad provoked Muslim protests that led to 50 deaths five years ago.
Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, recalled her joy over the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"Freedom for me personally is the happiest experience of my life," Merkel, 56, said at the conference on press freedom in Potsdam near Berlin. "Even 21 years after the Berlin Wall fell the force of freedom stirs me more than anything else."
She called press freedom a "precious commodity".
Honoured at the event was Kurt Westergaard, who drew the most controversial of 12 cartoons of Mohammad which angered Muslims worldwide after appearing in a Danish paper in 2005. He thanked Merkel and the organisers for his award.
"We are living a good life despite all the threats," said Westergaard, 75. He added the publication of the cartoons had been out of respect for the Muslim community and that it was an act of inclusion, not exclusion.
Most Muslims consider any depiction of the founder of Islam to be offensive, and Westergaard's cartoon portrayed Mohammad with a turban resembling a bomb. At least 50 people died in riots by enraged Muslims in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Some Muslims in Germany criticised the centre-right chancellor.
Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany said in a statement: "Merkel is honouring the cartoonist who in our view trampled on our prophet and trampled on all Muslims."
"By having her photo taken next to Kurt Westergaard, Merkel is taking a huge risk," wrote the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before the ceremony. "It will probably be the most explosive appointment of her chancellorship so far."
The German leader condemned plans by a Florida pastor to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11, which have also drawn worldwide criticism from Muslims, calling them "disrespectful, repulsive and simply wrong".
The mass-circulation Bild praised Westergaard and said Merkel's presence showed Germany "does not back down in the face of threats from Islamist fanatics".
Organisers of the M100 Media Prize said in their tribute the cartoons had "triggered an international controversy about freedom of speech and sparked worldwide, partly violent demonstrations of Muslims who felt insulted".
Westergaard stood by his work "invoking the right to feedom of speech", said the M100 prize committee, praising the Dane's "courage to stand by these democratic values and defend them, notwithstanding threats of violence and death".
(Writing by Stephen Brown; additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz in Amsterdam; editing by Andrew Roche)
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