Egypt's prime minister has sacked Justice Minister Ahmed el-Zend after his controversial remarks about imprisoning "the prophet" went viral.

Ahmed el-Zend was on a private Egyptian channel discussing his opponents on Friday when the interviewer asked him whether he would imprison journalists.

"Even if it's the prophet - peace and prayers upon him," Zend said before quickly repenting. He then added that anyone who is at fault will be imprisoned "regardless of their stature.

"Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a decree today to relieve Ahmed el-Zend ... of his position," a government statement said, giving no more details.

Egyptian judges issued a statement opposing Zend's removal over what the head of the Judges Club told Reuters news agency was a slip of the tongue that could have happened to anyone.

"Egypt's judges are sorry that someone who defended Egypt and its people, judiciary and nation in the face of the terrorist organisation that wanted to bring it down should be punished in this way," said Abdallah Fathi.

Earlier on Sunday, Egypt's al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, released a statement warning against any blasphemous comments surrounding the prophet "even if it were a mistake".

Videos of Zend's comments were shared widely online, causing the Arabic hashtag "Not the prophet, Prosecute el-Zend" to trend on Twitter in Egypt.


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Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former presidential candidate in Egypt's 2012 election, tweeted his condemnation of Zend's remarks and urged that criminal charges were brought.

Another user named Mostafa Hesham tweeted about how Zend's predecessor resigned amid public outrage after he said the sons of rubbish collectors should not become judges.

"The former justice minister was removed after commenting on the garbage collector, so imagine talking like that about the prophet," he said.

But Mahdi Abo Fateem, a Saudi Arabian author, reminded readers that Zend quickly backed away from the comments.

"Despite our differences with El-Zend, we have to tell the truth. The man repented when he realised his mistake," Abo Fateem tweeted.

Others tweeted about the remarks in English.

An Egyptian TV host, Youssef el-Hosseiny, attacked Zend on his show, saying that the minister can't self-censor what he says.

"[Zend] cannot moderate his own speech, nor can he control his outbursts ... This is the Egyptian minister of justice, be careful," Hosseiny said on his show.

Following the negative reaction online, Zend phoned in to an Egyptian talk show to defend himself, saying he never meant any offence.

"I said 'if' - those who understand this word know that this was a hypothetical matter ... That remark didn't hold anything and even then - because of my genuine religious feelings - I repented immediately," he said.

Zend also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of stirring outrage against him, saying both Egyptian media and social media have "fallen prey" to the group's alleged smear campaign.


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Last January, Zend also found himself the subject of controversy after saying he wouldn't be satisfied unless 400,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed in return for Egypt's fallen army soldiers.

"I swear 400,000 will not suffice … I swear by God almighty that, personally, the fire in my heart will not be extinguished unless for each one [soldier killed] there are at least 10,000 [Brotherhood members killed]," he said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned his comments advocating the mass killing of Brotherhood supporters.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have faced a major crackdown by Egyptian authorities since the toppling of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

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Source: Al Jazeera