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Merkel to honor Mohammed cartoonist at press award

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel risked angering Muslims by speaking at an awards ceremony on Wednesday for a Dane whose cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed provoked sometimes violent protests by Muslims five years ago.

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who sparked anger in the Muslim world with his caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, arrives for a news conference before the awarding ceremony of the M100 media prize 2010 in Potsdam, September 8, 2010. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele/Pool

The 75-year-old cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose drawings of Mohammed that offended Muslims worldwide first appeared in Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, was due to receive a prize Wednesday evening at a conference on freedom of the press.

At a time of fierce debate in Germany over disparaging remarks about Muslim immigrants made by a central bank member, some Muslims criticized the center-right chancellor and the media said she was taking a risk by honoring a man whom many Muslims believe insulted their faith.

Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany said in a statement: “Merkel is honoring the cartoonist who in our view trampled on our Prophet and trampled on all Muslims.”

“By having her photo taken next to Kurt Westergaard, Merkel is taking a huge risk,” wrote the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before the ceremony.

“It will probably be the most explosive appointment of her chancellorship so far.”

The mass-circulation Bild, which has voiced admiration for Bundesbank member Thilo Sarrazin for depicting Turkish and Arab immigrants as welfare spongers who fail to integrate, praised Westergaard and said Merkel’s presence showed Germany “does not back down in the face of threats from Islamist fanatics.”

Organizers of the M100 Media Prize to be awarded at Potsdam near Berlin said the cartoons had “triggered an international controversy about freedom of speech and sparked worldwide, partly violent demonstrations of Muslims who felt insulted.”

Most Muslims consider any depiction of the founder of Islam to be offensive, and the Danish cartoons portrayed Mohammed with a turban shaped like a bomb. At least 50 people died in ensuing riots by enraged Muslims in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Westergaard stood by his work “invoking the right to freedom of speech,” said the M100 prize committee, praising the Dane’s “courage to stand by these democratic values and defend them, notwithstanding threats of violence and death.”

The Organizers issued a statement from Merkel saying that, at a time when Germany is marking 20 years of unity after the fall of East Germany’s communist regime, her country was “still conscious of what the lack of freedom implies.”

Conservatives in Berlin’s city assembly threw out a member for inviting Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders to speak next month.

But Wilders said he would “of course” still speak in the German capital despite the action taken by Merkel’s Christian Democrats against councilor Rene Stadtkewitz, telling Reuters in an email he had “respect for Rene Stadtkewitz!”

Writing by Stephen Brown; additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz in Amsterdam; editing by Paul Taylor