Top French diplomat visits Cairo amid tensions over cartoons

CAIRO (AP) — France’s top diplomat visited Egypt on Sunday in an effort to calm tensions with the Muslim world following anti-French protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and three Islamic extremist attacks on France.

Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke at a press conference amid meetings with Egyptian political and religious leaders, saying that France is fighting against terror and extremism, not Islam.

“We are facing a terrorist threat and fanaticism on our soil and elsewhere. This a collective fight,” he said. “As we always defend the freedom to practice Islam in France … we are also determined to fight against extremism and terrorism.”

The current controversy, which has seen protests in parts of the Mideast and South Asia, comes amid heightened tensions over the caricatures published in French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron’s policies toward freedom of expression and Islamism. There were no protests in Cairo and other major Arab capitals.

The French diplomat met Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a close ally of Macron, and Foreign Minister Sahmeh Shukry. During the meeting, El-Sissi emphasized the need to promote “coexistence and tolerance” among religions, his office said.

Le Drian also met with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution.

El-Tayeb reiterated his stance that “insulting our Prophet Muhammad” cannot be classified as freedom of expression, referring to the Charlie Hebdo caricatures.

Le Drian said he held talks with Egyptian officials to reiterate France’s respect to Islam and the “full role” Muslims play in French society.

Late last month, el-Tayeb called for a universal legislation criminalizing discrimination against Muslims, and urged Muslims to resort to peaceful and legal means to “resist hate speech.”

He also condemned the extremist attacks in France, and called the decapitation last month of a French middle school teacher “an odious and painful murder.” The teacher had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad for a class on free speech.

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