PARIS - France said it would temporarily close its embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday after a French magazine published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, a move it fears will further inflame tensions over a film mocking the prophet.
"We have indeed decided as a precautionary measure to close our premises, embassies, consulates, cultural centers and schools," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said of the shut-down on Friday, prayer day across the Muslim world.
The French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Wednesday, a move criticized by the French authorities which sent riot police to protect the magazine's offices.
In response, Muslim leaders criticized the publication of cartoons of the
Prophet Mohammad as another Western insult to their faith and urged
France's government to take firm action against it.
"We reject and
condemn the French cartoons that dishonor the Prophet and we condemn any action
that defames the sacred according to people's beliefs," the acting head of
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Essam Erian, said.
Issues of the magazine hit newsstands with a front cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing a turbaned figure in a wheelchair with several caricatures of the Prophet on its inside pages, including some of him naked.
The front page cartoon had the wheelchair-bound figure saying "You mustn't mock" under the headline "Untouchable 2", a reference to a hugely popular French movie about a paralyzed rich white man and his black assistant.
The publication came amid widespread outrage over a short film, made with private funds in the United States, that mocks the Prophet and has ignited days of sometimes deadly protests in the Arab world, Africa, Asia and some Western countries.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticized the move as a provocation and said he had ordered security beefed up at French diplomatic offices in the Muslim world.
Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices were fire bombed last November after it published a mocking caricature of Mohammad. In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people.
Many Muslims consider any representation of Allah or the Prophet Mohammad offensive.
"Is it relevant and intelligent in this environment to add fuel to the fire? The answer is no," Fabius told France Info radio. "I'm very worried... and when I saw this I immediately issued instructions for special security precautions to be taken in all the countries where it could be a problem."
The government has called for restraint over the cartoons, restating the principles of free speech in France and urging those shocked by the images to take action through the courts.
Muslim leaders in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population, have appealed for calm.
As outrage over the anti-Muslim film continues to fuel violence and protests across the Islamic world, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the authorities had rejected a request to hold a march against the film in Paris.
"There is no reason for us to allow conflicts that do not concern France to enter our country," Ayrault told RTL radio.
Social media had circulated calls for a protest on Saturday against the film, after police arrested about 150 people who tried to take part in an unauthorized protest near the US Embassy in Paris last week.