Iranians carry 'I heart Muhammad' signs in protest over cartoon

TEHERAN (AFP/BLOOMBERG) - More than 2,000 Iranians, many carrying "I heart Mohammed" protested Monday outside the French embassy in Teheran, chanting "Death to France" and urging the ambassador be expelled because of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

The demonstration, one of many held throughout the Muslim world from Chechnya in Russia to Niger Africa, was in response to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's use of the cartoon in an edition published a week after 12 people were killed by Islamist gunmen at its Paris offices.

The image has angered many Muslims as depictions of Prophet Muhammad are widely considered forbidden in Islam, and has triggered protests in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, some of which turned deadly.

Some editors at other publications have declined to reprint the cartoon on the ground it's considered offensive to Muslims. The edition has triggered protests in predominantly Muslim nations including Pakistan and Sudan; led to riots in Niger that left at least 10 people dead; and has been criticised by the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis.

Iran denounced the Paris massacre but it also condemned the magazine's new cartoon, where the prophet holds a "Je suis Charlie" sign under the heading "All is forgiven".

Plans for Monday's protest led the French ambassador to announce that the embassy, located in busy downtown Teheran, would be closed all day.

The gathering, organised by students but attended by all age groups, was given a heavy security detail of around 150 Iranian police, and although noisy it passed off peacefully after two hours.

One speaker said the demonstration was to "condemn the insult of Charlie Hebdo," but also to denounce that "the embassy forces women to remove their veils to get a visa".

In Iran, women, regardless of their religious denomination, must have their hair and neck covered by a veil under a female dress code in force since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

"The least I can do is protest against this insult, we condemn insults of the Prophet," a woman in her 50s wearing a traditional head-to-toe black chador said.

As in customary in Iran, men and women were segregated at the protest.

Those gathered also criticised Iran's Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif for being in Paris for a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday.

The organisers in a final statement asked Zarif to apologise for making the trip "just two days after this disgraceful cartoon was published", also demanding the French ambassador be expelled.

Judiciary authorities shut the Mardom-e-Emrooz newspaper after it published on its front page a picture of US actor George Clooney with the headline, "I am Charlie", a reference to the actor's declaration at the Golden Globes awards ceremony last week.

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