France FM in Egypt affirms 'deep respect for Islam'

Cairo (AFP) –


French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Egypt Sunday hoping to ease tensions following the publishing of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that sparked ire in the Arab world.

Le Drian met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and will also meet Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest Muslim authority.

Le Drian's highly anticipated meeting with Tayeb, head of Al-Azhar -- considered the foremost religious institution for Sunni Muslims -- will tackle French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's decision in September to reprint the cartoons.

Last month Tayeb denounced remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron of "Islamist separatism" as "racist" and spreading "hate speech".

"I have emphasised, and emphasise here the deep respect we have for Islam," said the French minister during a press conference with Shoukry.

"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 Mohammed, seen by many as insulting and an attack on Islam.

Macron's remarks came after a suspected Islamist extremist decapitated a schoolteacher in a Paris suburb in October after he showed the cartoons to pupils during a lesson on freedom of expression.

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".

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 rival administrations held in Morocco.

He said both France and Egypt were on the same page in demanding the immediate withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya and respecting a United Nations arms embargo.

Drian will travel to Morocco for meetings with officials in the kingdom on Monday.

Asked about political prisoners held in Egyptian jails, Shoukry said, "there is no arbitrary detention, there is only detention according to the law".

Rights groups estimate that Egypt has some 60,000 political detainees, including Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun.