Merkel honours Danish Muhammad cartoonist Westergaard

Kurt Westergaard (left) with Chancellor Merkel and German politician Joachim Gauck (centre) Angela Merkel congratulates Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard on his prize

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad caused anger in 2006.

A depiction of Muhammad's turban as a fused bomb sparked global outrage when it was published in Denmark.

Presenting him with a press freedom award, Mrs Merkel said Mr Westergaard was entitled to draw his caricatures.

"Europe is a place where a cartoonist is allowed to draw something like this," she said.

"We are talking here about the freedom of opinion and the freedom of the press," Ms Merkel said at the ceremony in the German city of Potsdam.

The offending cartoon - which led to a groundswell of Muslim anger in many countries around the world - was one of 12 first published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

'Place of freedom'

Mrs Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, added that German people clearly remembered the implications of a lack of freedom and should therefore cherish it.

"It's about whether in a Western society with its values he [Mr Westergaard] is allowed to publish his Muhammad cartoons, or not. Is he allowed to do it? Yes he is," Ms Merkel said.

She described Europe as a place that respects and values the freedom of belief and religion.

Dozens of people died in violence that broke out in early 2006, months after Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons showing Muhammad in a variety of humorous or satirical situations. Muslims regard the depiction of the prophet as blasphemy.

The M100 media prize committee praised Kurt Westergaard for what it said was his "courage" to defend democratic values despite threats of violence and death.

Security was tight at Sanssouci palace in Potsdam where the cartoonist told reporters: "Maybe they will try to kill me and maybe they will have success, but they cannot kill the cartoon."

Speaking at the award ceremony Ms Merkel also described as "abhorrent" a plan by US pastor Terry Jones to burn copies of the Koran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 11 September terror attacks.

She said she found the idea disrespectful and "simply wrong".

'Risky decision'

Mrs Merkel's decision to speak at the event about press freedom has caused some surprise in Germany.

One newspaper said she was taking "a huge risk".

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that the effect of having a photograph taken with Kurt Westergaard was incalculable, describing it as "probably be the most explosive appointment of her chancellorship so far".

Germany's Central Muslim Council (ZMD) criticised Ms Merkel for attending the award ceremony.

A police sniper near Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, 8 September 2010 Mr Westergaard is under constant police protection and security at the awards ceremony was high

A ZMD spokesman, Aiman Mazyek, told public broadcaster Deutschlandradio that the Chancellor was honouring someone "who in our eyes kicked our prophet, and therefore kicked all Muslims".

He said giving Mr Westergaard the prize in a "highly charged and heated time" was "highly problematic".

In recent weeks Germany has seen a highly charged debate over immigration, partly set off by the publication of a book by a board member of the German central bank, Thilo Sarrazin.

In the book Mr Sarrazin, who is also a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) attacked what he describes as a failure of Muslims living in the Germany to integrate.

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