COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark’s prime minister complained Monday that his nation had been unfairly portrayed as intolerant in the international furor over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, and his foreign minister said a government apology would be pointless.
After meeting with a newly formed network of moderate Muslims, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for peaceful dialogue to defuse Denmark’s biggest international crisis since World War II.
“This meeting just testifies that the Danish government wants a positive dialogue with all groups in the Danish society,” he said. “The way forward is peaceful.”
However, critics said the network did not represent Denmark’s estimated 200,000 Muslims and warned the prime minister could be heightening tensions by not reaching out to radical groups.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller told The Associated Press the government had no reason to apologize for the drawings first published in one of Denmark’s largest newspapers.
“First, you cannot apologize for something you have not done,” Stig Moeller said in a telephone interview. “Second, nothing illegal has been done because no one has been found guilty by a court.”
More protests around the world
Protests against the cartoons continued, with Pakistani police firing tear gas on thousands of student protesters, Egyptian demonstrators calling for a boycott of European countries and hundreds of Palestinian schoolchildren trampling on a Danish flag.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said the conflict had united moderate and radical Muslims “because this hurts the sentiments of every Muslim.”
The Danish government has resisted pressure to accept any responsibility for the cartoons — one of which depicts the prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb — saying it has no say over the media.
Islam widely holds that representations of Muhammad are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry.
Fogh Rasmussen insisted that Denmark respects all religions and had been misrepresented in the Muslim world.
“We have seen distribution of false pictures, false stories, false rumors of Denmark,” he told reporters in Copenhagen.
“We have seen Denmark portrayed as a closed and intolerant society,” he added. “The truth is the opposite. Denmark is an open and tolerant society.”
Danish Islamic group criticized
He did not give examples of misinformation, but earlier criticized a group of Danish Islamic leaders who went on a Middle East tour in December.
Leaders of the group, claiming to represent 27 Muslim organizations, said they sought support in countries including Egypt, Syria and Lebanon because they felt their voices were not being heard in Denmark.
The group carried a dossier with purported examples of images offensive to Islam, including photocopies of the 12 Muhammad cartoons and three additional images — two offensive drawings of the prophet and a copy of an AP photograph that had nothing to do with the controversy.
That photograph, showing a bearded man wearing fake pig ears and a pig nose, was from a pig-squealing contest in France in August and had no connection with Islam or the Prophet Muhammad caricatures.
Group leaders have said they received copies of the three images in threatening letters and rejected that their group was responsible for fueling anti-Western anger in the Middle East.
In Egypt, thousands of students demonstrated Monday at universities in Cairo and the southern city of Assiut, denouncing the caricatures and warning that those who published the drawings “have opened the gates of hell on themselves.”
Anti-riot police stood at the gates of the two universities but did not intervene.
“Revolution everywhere! We are not going to be silent or asleep!” chanted about 1,500 male students demonstrating in Cairo. “Boycott is our duty because they insulted and humiliated our prophet!”
Anti-Danish sentiment from children
Hundreds of Palestinian schoolchildren, some as young as 4, stomped on a Danish flag and shouted anti-Danish slogans in a protest organized by a school affiliated with the Islamic militant group Hamas in the West Bank.
In Denmark, critics said the premier’s meeting with a network of moderate Muslims led by Syrian-born lawmaker Naser Khader risked escalating the situation by making radical groups feel left out.
“The government is setting up two poles,” Tanvir Ahmad, who leads another Muslim grouping, was quoted as saying by the Politiken newspaper.
Khader, however, said it was high time for moderate Muslims voices to be heard.
“We are Muslim, Danish and democratic,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s the extremists who have set the agenda. What is happening now is an overreaction.”
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