updated 8/23/2007 9:08:30 AM ET 2007-08-23T13:08:30

A newspaper catering to Malaysia’s ethnic Indians published a front-page apology Thursday for printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi criticized the action as hurtful and an insult to Christians, and called on people not to play with religion, the national news agency Bernama reported.

“If the Christians get to know about it, it will create problems,” Abdullah was quoted as saying. “I remind them again to stop doing this.”

S.M. Periasamy, general manager of the Tamil-language daily Makkal Osai, told The Associated Press that the newspaper published the image by mistake.

“The graphic artist, whom we have already suspended, didn’t see the cigarette,” Periasamy said. “It was a mistake.”

He said the artist downloaded an image of Jesus from the Internet for use along with a quote from the Bible on the paper’s front page Tuesday. But the artist overlooked the fact that the image had been, with a cigarette in one hand and another object — a can or a book — in the other, he said.

Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Murphy Pakiam, who earlier criticized the image as a “desecration,” accepted the newspaper’s apology. In an e-mail to Periasamy, the archbishop’s office said Pakiam now “considers the matter closed.”

'Serious issue'
However, the Malaysian Indian Congress, a party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition, filed a police report and called on the government to close the paper, which has generally been critical of the MIC.

“It’s a very serious issue. For certain things you can apologize, but for this kind of sensitive issue, the editor should be sacked and the paper closed,” senior party official T. Mohan told the AP.

Makkal Osai is one of two newspapers catering to Malaysia’s largely Tamil-speaking ethnic Indians. The other is aligned to the MIC.

Ethnic Indians comprise 10 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people, and are mostly Hindus with a sprinkling of Christians and Muslims; Chinese, who follow Christianity and Buddhism, 25 percent; Malay Muslims, 60 percent.

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