France’s foreign minister has visited Egypt in an attempt to ease tensions with the Muslim world after protests in several countries against France’s defence of the publication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Along with holding talks with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday also met Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Muslim authority.
The highly anticipated meeting tackled French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision in September to reprint the cartoons, which Muslims consider to be blasphemous. Last month, al-Tayeb denounced remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron about “Islamist separatism” as “racist” and spreading “hate speech”.
Macron’s comments followed the killing of Samuel Paty, a teacher in a Paris suburb who showed his pupils drawings of the prophet during a discussion on free speech.
Al-Tayeb’s position was unmoved on Sunday as he reiterated his defence of Islam’s sacredness – depictions of the prophet are strictly forbidden in Islam.
“Insulting our Prophet is completely unacceptable and we will pursue anyone who disrespects our honourable Prophet in international courts, even if we spend the rest of our lives on this matter only,” he said in a statement released by Al-Azhar.
Al-Tayeb had late last month called for universal legislation criminalising discrimination against Muslims, and urged Muslims to resort to peaceful and legal means to “resist hate speech”.
Sent to Egypt to defuse tensions, Le Drian sought to convey an emollient message following the meeting.
“I noted many points of divergence in our respective analysis,” he told reporters. But “the grand imam proposed we work together towards a common convergence … because together we must fight fanaticism”.
In a press conference alongside Shoukry earlier on Sunday, Le Drian had likewise struck a conciliatory tone.
“I have emphasised, and emphasise here, the deep respect we have for Islam,” said the French minister. “What we are fighting is terrorism, it is the hijacking of religion, it is extremism,” he added, noting he came “to explain, if need be, this fight, and at the same time the fight for respect for the freedom of belief.”
Demonstrations erupted in several Muslim-majority countries after Macron defended the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
El-Sisi himself had weighed in on the controversy last month, saying that “to insult the prophets amounts to underestimating the religious beliefs of many people”.
During the meeting on Sunday, el-Sisi emphasised the need to promote “coexistence and tolerance” among religions, his office said.
Le Drian’s visit also included discussion on Egypt’s conflict-hit western neighbour Libya.
“The developments in recent weeks are going in the right direction,” he said, referring to a ceasefire agreement and negotiations between opposing sides, including the latest round of peace talks between Libya’s rival administrations held in Morocco.
He said France and Egypt, who both support forces loyal to eastern-based renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, were on the same page in demanding the immediate withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya and respecting a United Nations arms embargo.