French minister seeks to ease tensions over cartoons in Cairo visit


French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Egypt Sunday where he sought to ease tensions with the Arab world, after the furore surrounding the republication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Le Drian met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest Muslim authority, speaking of his country's "deep respect" for Islam.

Le Drian's highly anticipated meeting with Tayeb, head of Al-Azhar -- considered the foremost religious institution for Sunni Muslims -- tackled French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's decision in September to reprint the cartoons.

Last month Tayeb denounced remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron about "Islamist separatism" as "racist" and spreading "hate speech".

Macron's remarks followed a suspected Islamist extremist decapitating a schoolteacher in a Paris suburb in October after he showed the cartoons to pupils during a lesson on freedom of expression. 

Tayeb's position was unmoved on Sunday as he reiterated his defence of Islam's sacredness. Depictions of the Prophet are strictly forbidden in Islam.

"Insulting our Prophet is completely unacceptable and we will pursue anyone who disrespects our honourabble Prophet in international courts, even if we spend the rest of our lives on this matter only," he forcefully said in a statement released by Al-Azhar.

Sent to defuse tensions, Le Drian sought to convey an emollient message following the meeting.

"I noted many points of convergence in our respective analysis," he told reporters. "The Grand Imam proposed we work together towards a common convergence... because together we must fight fanaticism."

- 'Deep respect for Islam' -

In a press conference alongside Egyptian foreign minister Shoukry earlier on Sunday, Le Drian had likewise struck a conciliatory tone.

"I have emphasised, and emphasise here the deep respect we have for Islam," said the French minister.

"What we are fighting is terrorism, it is the hijacking of religion, it is extremism," he added, noting he came "to explain, if need be, this fight, and at the same time the fight for respect for the freedom of belief". 

Demonstrations erupted in several Muslim-majority countries after Macron defended the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, seen by many as insulting and an attack on Islam. 

Sisi himself had weighed in on the controversy last month, saying that "to insult the prophets amounts to underestimating the religious beliefs of many people".

Le Drian's visit also included discussion on Egypt's conflict-hit western neighbour Libya.

"The developments in recent weeks are going in the right direction," he said, referring to a ceasefire agreement and negotiations between opposing sides, including the latest round of peace talks between rival administrations held in Morocco.

He said both France and Egypt were on the same page in demanding the immediate withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya and respecting a United Nations arms embargo.

Le Drian will travel to Morocco for meetings with officials in the kingdom on Monday.

Asked about political prisoners held in Egyptian jails, Shoukry said, "there is no arbitrary detention, there is only detention according to the law".

Rights groups estimate that Egypt has some 60,000 political detainees, including Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun.



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