UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged on Friday Muslims offended by cartoons carried by a Danish newspaper to accept the publisher's apology, while cautioning others against exacerbating the volatile situation.
"I share the distress of the Muslim friends who feel that the cartoon offends their religion. I also respect the right of freedom of speech. But of course freedom of speech is never absolute.
It entails responsibility and judgment," Annan told reporters. Emphasizing the need to overcome the immediate crisis, he added: "What is important is that the newspaper that initially published the cartoons has apologized, and I would urge my Muslim friends to accept the apology, to accept it in the name of Allah the Merciful, and let's move on."
He also appealed "to everybody not to take any measures that will inflame an already difficult situation".
The UN has "always respected freedom of speech along with the right to worship," Annan said, recalling the world body's initiatives to bridge the cultural divide between Islam and the West, including the Alliance of Civilizations, a high-level group discussing the issue.
The Danish daily Jyllands-Poste published 12 cartoons of Islam' s Prophet Mohammed last September, including a portrayal of the Islamic religion's founder wearing a bomb-shaped turban.
The cartoons have provoked a firestorm of indignation in the Muslim world and a boycott of Danish products in most Arab countries. The paper's editor finally issued an apology late Monday for offending Muslims, after long refusing to apologize for publishing the caricatures and insisting on the right to freedom of expression.
The cartoons, which are considered blasphemous by most Muslims, were reprinted over the past few days in other European papers.