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Cartoons: How an Exercise in Free Expression Led to Deadly Costs

I'm Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

The drawings that have led to increasing protests by Muslims in recent days first appeared in a Danish newspaper last September.

The Jyllands-Posten published twelve images of the Prophet Mohammad. Many Muslims say Islam bars showing any images of the prophet. Yet one cartoon, for example, showed Mohammed as a terrorist with a bomb on his head.

The newspaper says it published the cartoons as a form of political protest. Another newspaper had reported that a writer could not find anyone to draw pictures for a book about the prophet. Artists reportedly were afraid to draw them.

In October, ambassadors from ten Muslim nations and the Palestinian representative in Denmark wrote to the Danish prime minister. They urged him to take action against those responsible for the drawings.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he is sorry the cartoons offended Muslims. But he has refused to apologize for their being published.

Danish Muslim groups began legal action against the newspaper that published them.

In December, leaders from the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned the cartoons. They discussed them during their meeting in Saudi Arabia in Islam's holiest city, Mecca.

Delegates from a Danish coalition of twenty-seven Muslim groups had brought the cartoons to the Middle East in December to seek support. The delegates also included some images that had not been published. A spokesman has said they were not an attempt to mislead. He says they were mailed to Danish Muslims who had criticized the published cartoons.

In January, Danish government lawyers decided not to bring charges against the newspaper. A few days later, a publication in Norway printed the cartoons to show support for the Danish paper and for freedom of the press. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark and began a boycott of Danish goods.

A statement from the Jyllands-Posten apologized for offending Muslims, but supported the decision to print the drawings. Since then, news media in other countries have also printed them.

As protests spread to different countries, they turned violent and deadly. Danish and Norwegian embassies have been attacked.

There has been much debate about the reasons behind the protests.

Many people say the protests show the anger of Muslims at treatment by Westerners. They say the demonstrations also show anger at the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. But even some Muslims say the protests are being used in some cases to push for goals unrelated to defending Islam.

Denmark's prime minister says "religious extremists" have fueled the flames. In published comments this week Mister Rasmussen also criticized Syria and Iran. He says they have used the situation to gain support because they are both under international pressure.

He says Denmark is a liberal country, but its values must be honored. These include freedom of expression, equality for men and women and a separation of politics and religion.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Steve Ember.