Germany: Danish Muhammad cartoonist receives prize in ceremony attended by Chancellor Merkel

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the bravery of a Danish cartoonist who caricatured the Prophet Muhammad at an award ceremony honoring his achievements for freedom of speech.

In her speech praising illustrator Kurt Westergaard, "who has had to fear for his life since the publication of the cartoons in 2005," Merkel emphasized Wednesday that media freedom is an important element of rights in Europe.

"It does not matter if we think his cartoons are tasteful or not, if we think they are necessary and helping or not," Merkel said at the ceremony in the city of Potsdam. The question, she said, was, "Is he allowed to do this? Yes, he is."

There have been at least three attempted attacks on the 75-year-old Westergaard or his newspaper, the Danish the Jyllands-Posten, since he and 11 other artists angered Muslims around the world by creating the Muhammad cartoons four years ago. Protesters in Muslim countries have torched Danish and other Western embassies.

Westergaard's cartoon, which he said took 45 minutes to draw, was considered by many Muslims the most offensive of the 12. He has rejected calls to apologize, saying poking fun at religious symbols is protected by Denmark's freedom of speech.

Merkel's appearance at the award ceremony drew criticism from Muslim groups, who perceived it as an endorsement of Westergaard's cartoon. Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of Germany's Muslim Council, told public radio Deutschlandradio that Merkel is honoring the cartoonist who sullied "our Prophet ... and thereby all Muslims."

Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, rejected the criticism and said Merkel's message was to underscore the importance of freedom of speech.

Merkel condemned plans by a pastor in the United States to burn the Muslim holy book to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"If a fundamentalist evangelical pastor in America wants to burn the Quran on Sept. 11, I find that — in a word — disrespectful, also abhorrent and false," Merkel said.

Westergaard has been under police protection since February 2008, when Danish newspapers reprinted his caricature in a gesture of solidarity after police revealed a plot to kill him. In January, a Somali with a residence permit in Denmark broke into Westergaard's home wielding an ax and a knife, but Westergaard was unhurt.

Westergaard retired from Jyllands-Posten in June.