A French magazine published a series of provocative cartoons on Wednesday showing a nude Prophet Muhammad, likely to further fan the flames after a wave of Muslim protests over an anti-Islam film.
More than 30 people have been killed in attacks or violent protests linked to the controversial US-made film “Innocence of Muslims”, including 12 people who died in an attack by a female suicide bomber in Afghanistan on Tuesday.
And fears that the anger could spread to Europe mounted on Wednesday after French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons caricaturing the Muslim prophet, including one showing his naked buttocks.
The French government, which had urged the magazine not to print the images, said it was temporarily shutting down premises including embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday, when protests sometimes break out after Muslim prayers.
French schools in Tunisia will close from Wednesday afternoon until Monday morning due to security concerns, the embassy in Tunis said.
"It's a preventative measure. We have not received any direct threats," an embassy source told AFP, adding that the mission would stay closed on Friday, when Islamist demonstrations following weekly prayers are common.
The magazine's editor, originally a cartoonist who uses the name Charb, said the images would “shock those who will want to be shocked”.
“The freedom of the press, is that a provocation?” he said. “I'm not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo, just like I wouldn't go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe.”
Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy. Last year it published an edition “guest-edited” by the Prophet Muhammad that it called Sharia Hebdo and its offices in Paris were subsequently firebombed.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said anyone offended by the cartoons could take the matter to the courts after expressing his “disapproval of all excesses”, but he emphasised France's tradition of free speech.
Muslim leaders criticised the cartoons on Wednesday as another Western insult to their faith and urged France's government to take firm action against it.
"We reject and condemn the French cartoons that dishonour the Prophet and we condemn any action that defames the sacred according to people's beliefs," the acting head of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Essam Erian, said.
Erian said the French judiciary should deal with the issue as firmly as it had handled the case against the magazine which published topless pictures of Britain's Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William.
"If the case of Kate (the duchess) is a matter of privacy, then the cartoons are an insult to a whole people. The beliefs of others must be respected," he said.
Erian also spoke out against any violent reaction from Muslims but said peaceful protests were justified.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed French government criticism of the cartoons but said that French law should deal with insults against Islam in the same way as it deals with Holocaust denial.
"If anyone doubts the Holocaust happened, they are imprisoned, yet if anyone insults the Prophet, his companions or Islam, the most (France) does is to apologise in two words. It is not fair or logical," he said.
An official in Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church said the move was a deliberate provocation. It showed "some international powers" wanted violence to escalate in Egypt so that the country would not develop economically, the official, who asked not to be named, said without elaborating.
In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet caused a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world in which at least 50 people were killed. - AFP, Reuters