French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Egypt on Sunday to ease tension with the Arab world following the uproar over the republication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Le Drian met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Muslim authority, and spoke about his country’s “deep respect” for Islam.
Le Drian’s eagerly awaited meeting with Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar – considered the main religious institution for Sunni Muslims – in September focused on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision to reprint the cartoons.
Last month, Tayeb condemned French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements about “Islamist separatism” as “racist” and the spread of “hate speech”.
Macron’s remarks followed a suspected Islamist extremist who beheaded a teacher in a Paris suburb in October after showing students the cartoons during a lesson on freedom of expression.
Tayeb’s position was unmoved on Sunday as he reiterated his defense of the holiness of Islam. Representations of the prophet are strictly forbidden in Islam.
“Insulting our prophet is totally unacceptable and we will persecute anyone who disregards our honorable prophet in international courts, even if we spend the rest of our lives on that matter,” he said urgently in a statement released by Al-Azhar.
Le Drian was sent to ease the tension and tried to convey a softening message after the meeting.
“I found many points of convergence in our respective analysis,” he told reporters. “The Grand Imam suggested that we work together towards a common convergence … because we must fight fanaticism together.”
– “Deep respect for Islam” –
In a press conference with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry on Sunday, Le Drian had also hit a conciliatory tone.
“I have emphasized and stressed the deep respect we have for Islam,” said the French minister.
“What we are fighting is terrorism, it is the abduction of religion, it is extremism,” he added, noting that he has come “to declare this fight if necessary, and at the same time fight for respect for freedom of belief “.
Demonstrations erupted in several Muslim-majority countries after Macron defended the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, viewed by many as an insult and an attack on Islam.
Sisi herself had addressed the controversy last month, saying that “to insult the prophets is to underestimate the religious beliefs of many people”.
Le Drian’s visit also included a discussion of Egypt’s conflict-affected western neighbor, Libya.
“Developments in the last few weeks are heading in the right direction,” he said, referring to a ceasefire agreement and negotiations between opposing sides, including the recent round of peace talks between rival administrations in Morocco.
He said both France and Egypt were on the same side in demanding the immediate withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya and compliance with a United Nations arms embargo.
Le Drian will travel to Morocco on Monday to meet with Kingdom officials.
When asked about political prisoners in Egyptian prisons, Shoukry said: “There is no arbitrary detention, there is only detention according to the law.”
Rights groups estimate that around 60,000 political prisoners live in Egypt, including the Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French citizen Celine Lebrun.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)