South Africa's president appealed for tolerance and mutual respect Thursday as tens of thousands of Muslims angered by a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad demonstrated peacefully in Cape Town.
President Thabo Mbeki said South Africa's experience in overcoming the racial divisions and hatreds of apartheid offered important lessons.
"I believe that one of our greatest achievements ... since the dawn of our democracy has been precisely the advance we have made toward building the united but diverse society which is so fundamental to our future," Mbeki told parliament.
Mbeki added his voice to that of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in appealing for protesters to refrain from violence.
Not far from parliament, downtown Cape Town ground to a halt as the demonstrators, many of them women and children, voiced their outrage. Police estimated the crowd at 30,000; organizers said 100,000.
"Don't insult our prophet," read one typical banner. "Respect our religion," read another. "Courtesy and etiquette come before freedom of the press and speech," said another.
Representatives of the Muslim Judicial Council and Danish Ambassador Torben Brylle held what was described as a "good" meeting on Wednesday.
The Muslim council demanded an immediate and unwavering apology from the Danish government to the global Muslim community, as well as immediate "reproach" of the editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which first published the offensive cartoons.
A memorandum addressed to the Danish ambassador said there would be an embargo against Danish products until an apology was issued.
Such demonstrations have swept the world. The cartoons have caused a furor, in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Islam's holiest figure. Aggravating the affront was one caricature of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. They were first published in a Danish newspaper last year and since have been reprinted by a number of European newspapers, some in solidarity with freedom of the press.
One South African weekly newspaper has published the cartoons so far, but the rest have been banned from doing so by the High Court at the request of a Muslim group.
The Cabinet on Wednesday said it upheld the principle of freedom of speech, but that the constitution bound South Africans to respect the sensitivities of individuals and communities
"Our constitution entrenches the right to freedom of speech," Mbeki said Thursday. "At the same time our constitution also entrenches the freedom of religion, belief and opinion .... It says that the right to freedom of expression 'does not extend to advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to harm."
He backed a British newspaper editorial that said there was "no merit in causing gratuitous offense." He said he also agreed with an editorial in the Danish paper at the center of the scandal that said "various groups should live in peace and harmony with each other and that the debates and disagreements which will always exist in a dynamic society should do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect."