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Reaction to Cartoon Controversy Muted in Russia


Russia has a sizable Muslim minority of about 20 million people, but the controversy about the cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad has not led to widespread street protests. Newspapers have also refrained from reprinting the cartoons that originally appeared in a Danish paper.

Earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks against diplomatic missions in response to the cartoons' publication.

But the statement also expressed "serious concern" about the negative consequences of actions that openly insult the religious feelings of Muslim believers.

Protests, directed mostly at Denmark, have taken place in many different countries since the cartoons of the prophet first appeared in a Danish newspaper.

Muslim leaders in Russia have criticized the cartoons and there was one small demonstration reported in mostly-Muslim Dagestan, in southern Russia.

But a key pro-Russian leader in neighboring Chechnya has banned all Danish aid organizations from working in the region where Russian troops have fought a separatist war for over a decade.

Ramzan Kadyrov says this is to punish Denmark for offending the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.

Russian newspapers were quick to denounce his move, saying aid workers have nothing to do with the act of newspaper editors and that the pact will only prevent crucial aid from reaching refugees and other needy people in Chechnya.

But for the most part, the response has been low-key, which some analysts attribute to the relatively low profile of the Islamic community in Russia.

The largest Muslim community is made up of ethnic Tatars who live mostly in the Volga River region, where relations with Russians have historically been peaceful and harmonious.

The cartoon controversy has received extensive coverage in Russia's media. But no newspapers have published the caricatures that Muslims find so offensive - in part because they may face legal action under laws that prevent "provoking ethnic or religious strife".

Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the papers may also be showing self-restraint.

"I think, if somebody publishes such cartoons in Russia, that will provoke some manifestations," said Malashenko. "The big part of Muslims in Russia identify themselves with Muslims in Middle East, and I think that in Russia here we don't need some Muslim strikes, some additional Muslim political activity."

Some Russian politicians have also called for calm, adding that the principle of free speech should not mean anyone can insult the religious beliefs of others.

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