The EU's Austrian presidency rallied Monday to the defense of the freedom of the press and expression amid growing Muslim anger about controversial Danish cartoons portraying Prophet Mohammed.
A Palestinian militant group burns a Norwegian flag in the Gaza Strip
"We have reiterated our belief and our attachment to the freedom of the press and freedom of expression as part of our fundamental values," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told journalists Monday after chairing a meeting with her European Union colleagues.
"We have equally referred to the religious beliefs that are to be respected in our societies as fundamental values as well," she added.
Cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed wearing a time-bomb shaped turban, published in a Danish newspaper last September and reprinted in a Norwegian magazine in January, have sparked uproar in the Muslim world where images of the prophet are considered
The row has taken a new dimension over the past days, with Danish flags being burnt, products being boycotted and Copenhagen starting to take measures to protect its citizens living in Muslim countries.
Plassnik said that the EU "strongly rejects" threats to its citizens and that: "We do hope that this issue can be solved through constructive dialogue between the parties involved".
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana insisted that the EU did not want to hurt anybody.
"We have condemned any expression or acts that attempt to demonize any religion and that is what we try to convey to the leaders of the Arab world (and) the Islamic world," he added.
Muslim boycott of Danish products
Egypt's powerful opposition Muslim Brotherhood on Monday was the latest group to join a chorus of calls for the boycott of Danish and Norwegian products.
The incident has threatened to deal an unprecedented blow to the Muslim and Arab world's usually healthy relations with Scandinavian governments, who are major donors in the region.
"Sorry We Don't Sell Products Made in Denmark" reads a sign in a supermarket in Saudi Arabia
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson warned a Saudi official during a meeting in the Swiss ski resort of Davos that any boycott of Danish products was tantamount to a boycott of European goods.
Mandelson's spokesman warned Riyadh it could have to take the matter to the World Trade Organisation if the Saudi government encouraged the boycott.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the "double standards" in the European media.
"We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam," Mussa told reporters.
Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.
Attacks against EU offices
Libya announced Sunday it had decided to close its diplomatic representation in Copenhagen "in light of the attacks against the Prophet Mohammed and the silence of the Danish authorities."
In a further step, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have announced their intention to seek a UN resolution banning attacks against religious beliefs.
A Palestinian militant cradles his weapon next to the EU building in the Gaza Strip
At another Gaza demonstration, protestors burned the Danish flag.
Denmark won't apologize
The Danish government has said the views expressed by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper did not reflect its own but has consistently refused to apologize and has insisted it would defend freedom of expression.
An official from a Danish dairy products company said two of its salespersons were molested in Saudi Arabia, in the holy Muslim city of Mecca.
The Danish government "vigorously condemns these attacks as well
as the fact that Danish flags have been burnt in the Arab world and
expects the governments of these countries to do the same," Danish
Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said.
A Palestinian child steps on a Danish national flag, as a sign of disrespect
The Danish foreign ministry issued a warning to its nationals in seven Arab countries to be extra vigilant, while the Danish branch of the Red Cross said it had evacuated two of its aid workers in Gaza and one in Yemen.
The cartoons have triggered one of Scandinavia's most serious diplomatic incidents in recent years but a poll published over the weekend showed that most Danes felt their government should not apologize over the cartoons.
Arab newspapers have frequently been criticized for carrying anti-Semitic opinions and cartoons.
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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made no secret of his critical attitude toward the EU. But the conservative politician won't dare risk an open split between Brussels and Budapest.