A French magazine Charia Hebdo ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad on Wednesday by portraying him naked in cartoons, threatening to fuel the anger of Muslims around the world who are already incensed by a film depiction of him as a lecherous fool.
The drawings in satirical weekly Charia Hebdo risked exacerbating a crisis that has seen the storming of U.S. and other Western embassies, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and a deadly suicide bombing in Afghanistan.
Riot police were deployed to protect the magazine's Paris offices after it hit the news stands with a cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing the turbaned figure of Mohammad in a wheelchair.
On the inside pages, several caricatures of the Prophet showed him naked. One, entitled "Mohammad: a star is born", depicted a bearded figure crouching over to display his buttocks and genitals.
The French government, which had urged the weekly not to print the cartoons, said it was temporarily shutting down premises including embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday, when protests sometimes break out after Muslim prayers.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called the drawings provocative and outrageous but said those who were offended by them should "use peaceful means to express their firm rejection".
Tunisia's governing Islamist party, Ennahda, condemned the cartoons as an act of "aggression" against Mohammad. It urged Muslims, in responding to it, to avoid falling into a trap designed by "suspicious parties to derail the Arab Spring and turn it into a conflict with the West".
In Lebanon, Salafist cleric Sheikh Nabil Rahim said the incident would raise tensions that were already dangerously high.
"We will try to keep things managed and peaceful, but these things easily get out of hand. I fear there could more targeting of foreigners, and this is why I wish they would not persist with these provocations," he said.
In the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles, one person was slightly hurt when two masked men threw a small explosive device through the window of a kosher Jewish supermarket, a police source said, adding it was too early to link the incident to the cartoons.
The posting of a short film on YouTube last week that mocked Mohammad as a womanizing buffoon has sparked protests in many countries, some of them deadly.
The U.S. envoy to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi, and U.S. and other foreign embassies were stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by furious Muslims. Afghan militants said a suicide bombing that killed 12 people on Tuesday was carried out in retaliation for the film, which was made with private funds in California.
At least four people died last week after hundreds of protesters forced their way into the U.S. embassy in Tunis, ransacking it and burning some of its annexes.
The furor has emerged as an issue in the U.S. presidential election campaign and sparked a wider international debate over free speech, religion and the right to offend. Many Muslims consider any representation of Allah or the Prophet Mohammad blasphemous.
"We have the impression that it's officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists," said editor Stephane Charbonnier, who drew the front-page cartoon.
"It shows the climate - everyone is driven by fear, and that is exactly what this small handful of extremists who do not represent anyone want - to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave," he told Reuters.
One cartoon, in reference to the scandal over a French magazine's decision to publish topless photos of the wife of Britain's Prince William, showed a topless, bearded character with the caption: "Riots in Arab countries after photos of Mrs. Mohammad are published."
BEEFED UP SECURITY
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticized the magazine's move as a provocation.
"We saw what happened last week in Libya and in other countries such as Afghanistan," Fabius told a regular government news conference. "We have to call on all to behave responsibly."
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said France was closing its embassies, consulates, cultural centers and schools in 20 countries on Friday as a "precautionary measure".
In Egypt, Essam Erian, acting head of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Reuters: "We reject and condemn the French cartoons that dishonor the Prophet and we condemn any action that defames the sacred according to people's beliefs."
Charlie Hebdo has a long reputation for being provocative. Its Paris offices were firebombed last November after it published a mocking caricature of Mohammad, and Charbonnier has been under police guard ever since.
Speaking outside his offices in an eastern neighborhood with many residents of North African origin, Charbonnier said he had not received any threats over the latest cartoons. In a message on its Twitter account, Charlie Hebdo said its website had been hacked, but referred readers to a blog it also uses.
The French Muslim Council, the main body representing Muslims in France, accused Charlie Hebdo of firing up anti-Muslim sentiment at a sensitive time.
"The CFCM is profoundly worried by this irresponsible act, which in such a fraught climate risks further exacerbating tensions and sparking damaging reactions," it said.
Richard Prasquier, head of the body representing France's Jewish community - Europe's largest - said religious censorship was wrong but added: "Publishing Mohammad cartoons at this time, in the name of freedom, is irresponsible".
In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people.
The decision to temporarily close some embassies comes at a time when France is already on heightened alert over possible attacks by al Qaeda on French interests in West Africa.
A diplomatic source said this week Paris recently foiled attacks on economic and diplomatic targets and had credible evidence that more were planned. "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a direct and immediate threat," the source said.
Separately, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the authorities had rejected a request to hold a march against the Mohammad film in Paris.
Social media had circulated calls for a protest on Saturday against the film, after police arrested about 150 people who tried to take part in an unauthorized protest near the U.S. Embassy in Paris last week.