Scores of Muslims staged a demonstration Friday against a Swedish newspaper and demanded that its chief editor apologize for publishing a drawing depicting the Prohet Muhammad with a dog's body.
The rally outside the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper in Orebro followed formal protests by Iran and Pakistan in a brewing conflict over the cartoon made by Swedish artist Lars Vilks.
Sweden's prime minister called for mutual respect between Muslims, Christians and nonreligious groups in an attempt to avert a wider conflict. Last year, fiery protests erupted in Muslim countries after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of the prophet for fear it could lead to idolatry.
About 300 people rallied outside the newspaper's offices, demanding an apology and saying the cartoon, a rough sketch showing Muhammad's head on a dog's body, was insulting to Muslims, the news agency TT reported.
"We want to show Nerike's Allehanda that Muslims in this city are upset over what happened," Jamal Lamhamdi, chairman of the Islamic cultural center in Orebro, told Swedish public radio. Orebro is a city of about 100,000 residents, 125 miles west of Stockholm.
Earlier, a handful of people, mostly youth, staged a separate demonstration outside the newspaper in defense of press freedom, TT reported.
Nerikes Allehanda editor-in-chief Ulf Johansson met with Lamhamdi but refused to apologize for the cartoon, which was part of an Aug. 19 editorial criticizing several Swedish art galleries for refusing to display a series of prophet drawings by Vilks.
"They say they are offended and I regret that, because our purpose was not to offend anyone," Johansson told The Associated Press. "But they are asking for an apology and a promise that I never again publish a similar image ... and that I cannot do."
The editorial defended "Muslims' right to freedom of religion" but also said it must be permitted to "ridicule Islam's most foremost symbols — just like all other religions' symbols."
The paper said Vilks' drawings were different from the "rotten" cartoons published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which triggered violent attacks against Danish and other Western embassies in several Muslim countries.
That paper had invited cartoonists to make illustrations of Muhammad in what it said was a challenge to self-censorship among artists dealing with Islamic issues. The cartoons, one of which showed Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb, later were reprinted by dozens of newspapers and Web sites in Europe and elsewhere.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt commented on the dispute for the first time Friday, saying Sweden was a country "where Muslims and Christians, those who believe in God and those who don't believe in God can live side by side with mutual respect."
"At the same time we are eager to stand up for the freedom of speech ... which is about not taking decisions politically about what is published in newspapers," Reinfeldt told TT.
Pakistan and Iran summoned Swedish diplomats this week to protest against the publication of the cartoon. The charge d'affaires at the Swedish Embassy in Islamabad, Lennart Holst, explained the press freedom laws in Sweden and said the government cannot interfere with what newspapers publish, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andre Mkandawire said.
"He did not apologize but regretted that the publication had hurt Muslims' feelings," Mkandawire said.
In Pakistan, dozens of supporters from Islamic parties burned the flag of Sweden in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday. In Karachi, others torched an effigy of the Swedish premier to protest the cartoon.
Vilks said he made the drawings after being invited to contribute to an art exhibition in central Sweden on the theme of dogs.
"To begin with, the message was to make a critical contribution on the dog theme, but it took another direction," Vilks told AP in a phone interview. "Why can you not criticize Islam when you can criticize other religions?"
Vilks said he expected protests locally against his drawings but insisted he didn't mean to insult Muslims.
"My images are art. I don't have a xenophobic attitude. I'm not against Islam. Everyone knows that," he said.