CAIRO Muslim and Arab leaders on Wednesday denounced cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a French magazine as another insult to their faith but urged people to shun a violent reaction and to protest peacefully.
The cartoons, featured in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, showed an Orthodox Jew pushing a turbaned figure in a wheelchair on its cover. Several caricatures of the Prophet were included on its inside pages, including some of him naked.
Their publication follows widespread outrage and violent anti-Western protests in many Muslim countries in Africa and Asia in the past week over an anti-Muslim film posted on the Internet.
The Arab League called the cartoons "provocative and outrageous". It said in a statement that they could increase the volatile situation in the Arab and Islamic worlds since the release of the film.
The League appealed to Muslims offended by the cartoons to "use peaceful means to express their firm rejection."
The acting head of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Essam Erian, said the French judiciary should deal with the issue as firmly as it had handled the case against the magazine which published topless pictures of Britain's Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William.
"If the case of Kate (the duchess) is a matter of privacy, then the cartoons are an insult to a whole people. The beliefs of others must be respected," he said.
Erian also spoke out against any violent reaction from Muslims but said peaceful protests were justified.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed French government criticism of the cartoons but said that French law should deal with insults against Islam in the same way as it deals with Holocaust denial.
"If anyone doubts the Holocaust happened, they are imprisoned, yet if anyone insults the Prophet, his companions or Islam, the most (France) does is to apologise in two words. It is not fair or logical," he said.
In Lebanon, leading Salafist cleric Sheikh Nabil Rahim said the cartoons could lead to more violence.
"Of course it will anger people further. It will raise tensions that were already dangerously high."
He accused those involved of trying provoke a clash of civilizations, not dialogue.
"We will try to keep things managed and peaceful, but these things easily get out of hand. I fear there could more targetting of foreigners, and this is why I wish they would not persist with these provocations."
Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar institution for Islamic denounced the cartoons as "spiteful trivialities which promote hatred in the name of freedom".
In Tunisia, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist movement leading the first elected government in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, condemned the cartoons as an "agression" against Prophet Mohammad.
It urged Muslims to avoid falling into a trap designed by "suspicious parties to derail the Arab Spring and turn it into a conflict with the West" and a conflict amongst Muslims.
In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet caused a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world in which at least 50 people were killed.
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad, Tom Perry, Ayman Samir, Erika Solomon and Souhail Karam, Editing by Angus MacSwan)