New Zealand was bracing yesterday for fallout from the Islamic world after two newspapers published controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, with a potential trade ban by Iran the main concern.
The first reaction came at home when more than 700 Muslims, many wearing black arm bands, staged a protest march through the center of Auckland, the country's biggest city. It was organized by the local Pakistan association.
Prime Minister Helen Clark dubbed publication of the cartoons "gratuitous" and said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had warned Wellington's Dominion Post, which printed them on Saturday, that there could be repercussions for New Zealand's trade.
She said the government was monitoring developments overseas in reaction to the publication closely for any signs of a backlash, Radio New Zealand reported.
Clark said the issue was not one of freedom of the press but of "taste and judgment" and the cartoons would do nothing to bring communities together.
With reports that New Zealand diplomats in Muslim countries had been warned to take precautions against possible threats to staff and property, Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton said that by upsetting Muslim nations the newspaper publishers were putting the island nation's economy at risk.
The government's immediate worry was a reported threat by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to review all economic relations with countries where the cartoons had been published.
Iran is an important market for New Zealand, buying more than NZ$100 million (about US$70 million) in goods annually from the world's biggest exporter of dairy products.
Reports of demonstrators setting fire to Denmark's embassy in Syria's capital Damascus in protest against the original publication of the caricatures in September in a Danish newspaper led news bulletins yesterday morning on Radio New Zealand.
On Saturday some Muslim shopkeepers reportedly refused to sell the Dominion Post and The Press of Christchurch, which claimed they published the cartoons as part of "the battle between freedom of speech and religion."
Javed Khan, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations, said that Muslim groups in New Zealand would discuss whether to lodge complaints with the race relations commissioner and Ethnic Affairs Minister Chris Carter, or to take up the issue directly with the papers.
"It is hard to see why the publication of cartoons known to be deeply offensive to Muslim communities is such an important point of principle to the New Zealand media who have published them," Carter said on Saturday.
"What good did it do to publishing these cartoons and what damage could it do to communities in New Zealand and to New Zealand's international reputation?" he said.