France will temporarily close its embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday after a French magazine published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, a move the government fears will further inflame tensions after last week's outburst of protests against an anti-Islam video.
"We have indeed decided as a precautionary measure to close our premises, embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools," a foreign ministry spokesman said of the shut-down set for Friday.
On Wednesday, France stepped up security and appealed for calm after satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons.
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Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, said he had ordered special security measures "in all the countries where this could pose a problem". Demonstrations across the Islamic world often follow Friday prayers.
Fabius admitted that he was "concerned" by the potential for a backlash to Charlie Hebdo's printing of the series of cartoons, given the background of violent protests that have taken place in the Muslim world over the release of the anti-Islam video, Innocence of Muslims.
Police were deployed outside the Paris offices of the magazine on Wednesday. The left-wing, satirical publication's offices were firebombed last year after it published an edition "guest-edited" by Prophet Muhammad that it called Sharia Hebdo.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged "responsibility" and said anyone offended by the caricatures could sue in court.
French schools and cultural centres in Egypt were closed on Thursday as a precautionary measure, the French consulate said.
"Although there has been no specific threat in Egypt, it has been decided as a precaution and as in other countries, to close French schools and cultural centres in Egypt on Thursday September 20," it said in a statement.
The cartoons have provoked relatively little street anger so far, although about 100 Iranians demonstrated outside the French embassy in Tehran.
Appeal for calm
Leaders of the large Muslim community in France said an appeal for calm would be read out in mosques across the country on Friday but it also condemned the magazine for publishing "insulting" images.
French editor defends Muhammad cartoons publication
The cover of the magazine shows a Muslim in a wheelchair being pushed by an Ultra-Orthodox Jew under the title "Intouchables 2", referring to an award-winning French film about a poor black man who helps an aristocratic quadriplegic.
The weekly carries a total of four cartoons that include images definitively intended to represent the Prophet. In two of them, the Prophet is shown naked.
The explict - arguably vulgar - nature of the drawings made it inevitable they would cause offence.
The Charlie Hebdo editor told Al Jazeera that its website has crashed after it was hacked.
'Freedom of expression'
Ayrault said anyone offended by the cartoons could take the matter to the courts but made it clear there would be no government legal action against the weekly.
"We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed, including the freedom to caricature," he said.
"If people really feel offended in their beliefs and think there has been an infringement of the law - and we are in a state where laws must be totally respected - they can go to court," Ayrault said.
He also said any request to hold a demonstration in Paris would be refused.
France's interior ministry has already banned all protests over the controversial video following a violent demonstration last weekend near the US embassy.
Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, has defended the cartoons.
"I'm not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo, just like I wouldn't go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe."
'Glory of the hero'
Muslims angered by cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad should follow his example of enduring insults without retaliating, Egypt's highest Islamic legal official said on Thursday.
Condemning the publication of the cartoons in France as an act verging on incitement, Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said it showed how polarised the West and the Muslim world had become.
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His statement echoed one by Al Azhar, Egypt's prestigious seat of Sunni learning, which condemned the caricatures showing the Prophet naked but said any protest should be peaceful.
An official at the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, whose population of 83 million people is 10 per cent Christian, also condemned the cartoons as insults to Islam.
Western embassies tightened security in Sanaa, fearing the cartoons published in a French magazine on Wednesday could lead to more unrest in the Yemeni capital, where crowds attacked the US mission last week over an anti-Islam film made in America.
In the latest of a wave of protests against that video in the Islamic world, several thousand Shia Muslims demonstrated
in the northern Nigerian town of Zaria, burning an effigy of US President Barack Obama and crying "Death to America".
An Islamist activist called for attacks in France to avenge the perceived insult to Islam by the "slaves of the cross".
Mu'awiyya al-Qahtani said on a website used by Islamist militants and monitored by the US-based SITE intelligence group: "Is there someone who will roll up his sleeves and bring back to us the glory of the hero Mohammed Merah?"
He was referring to an al Qaeda-inspired gunman who killed seven people, including three Jewish children, in the southern French city of Toulouse in March.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies