MOSCOW — A city-owned newspaper in Volgograd has been ordered closed after publishing a cartoon depicting the leaders of the four major religions that illustrated an article intended as an appeal against racism, authorities said Friday.
Facing complaints from the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party and Islamic organizations over the depiction of the prophet Muhammad, the city administration ordered the closure of Gorodskiye Vesti and the municipal corporation that publishes it to prevent religious "hostilities" and to "stop the abuse of freedom of mass information."
The cartoon was not part of the series, first published by a Danish newspaper last fall and since widely reprinted, that has led to violent protests in many parts of the Muslim world. The Russian illustration portrays Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses and Buddha gathered around a television screen showing two groups going into battle.
"We never taught them to do that," the caption says.
Although newspapers have been shut down and editors fired in connection with the cartoon controversy in places as diverse as the Middle East and Malaysia, the Russian newspaper appeared to be the first closure of a paper in a nation without a Muslim majority. Russia has about 20 million Muslims, about 15% of the population.
"It's a disgrace for Russia," Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, said of the order to close the paper.
"What's important here is that no person of faith, no Muslim, voiced any indignation about this immediately after the publication, as was the case with the Danish newspaper," he said. "It turned out that the most sensitive and vulnerable Muslim souls in Russia were the prosecutor general's office, the parliament and the Public Chamber."
Islamic organizations launched written protests only after Russian government officials decided to open an inquiry, he maintained, though several Muslim leaders denied they were influenced by the government.
Gorodskiye Vesti staff members said Friday that editor Tatiana Kaminskaya, who has apologized, was at home due to illness. Irina Sidelnikova, a columnist with the paper, said in a telephone interview that the staff planned to publish an edition today and would appeal to subscribers for support.
"This has been an emotional reaction, and I hope common sense will prevail. We are being swept away by this huge wave spreading around the globe," said Sidelnikova. "Today, all our phone lines are hot with readers calling us and expressing their support. There has not been a single negative response."
Acting city administrator A.O. Doronin gave the newspaper, which reaches 12,000 readers in the southwestern city once known as Stalingrad, one month in which to comply with the closure order. Analysts said many staffers might keep their jobs if the city elects to open a newspaper under another name.
Russian media reported that it was United Russia's branch in Volgograd that initiated the campaign against the newspaper. But Kamilzhan Kalandarov, the leader of the Muslim human rights organization Al Khak, had announced this week that the organization would push to have the newspaper's license revoked. Kalandarov is a member of the Public Chamber, a new quasi-official civic advisory panel designed to broaden public input in the government.
"When the Danish newspaper first ran the caricatures, we appealed to people of faith not to respond to this, not to take the bait. We asked people not to go out into the streets, not to react violently," Kalandarov said in a telephone interview. "I never expected that this provocation would be repeated in the Russian press."
Kalandarov added, "It's a shame that the efforts of patriotically inclined Muslims have gone to waste, and all our attempts to preserve peace and harmony can be crossed out with one stroke of a pen."The Russian Council of Muftis said this week that the cartoon in the Volograd newspaper was "regarded with aversion by Muslims."
Several senior Russian officials also criticized its publication. "These clumsy moves which provoked the public outcry, to put it mildly, in the West must not be repeated, must be prevented in our country," Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov said in remarks carried on NTV.
But in an environment of shrinking press freedom in Russia, journalist Yakovenko said he believed officials were motivated as much by politics as cultural sensitivity. "One motive was to use the situation to scare the media a bit, and to put them under even harsher control," the union chief said.
Volgograd, a city of about 1.1 million on the Volga River, has had a substantial increase in ethnically motivated violence in the last two years. Sidelnikova said the article and cartoon were an attempt to urge an end to religious hatred, not incite it.
"The sense of the drawing," she said, "was that none of the main religions teach people to attack each other, to fight among themselves."