Minister refuses to resign over Prophet T-shirt

A Cabinet minister resisted calls for his resignation today, after his decision to wear a T-shirt featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad was blamed for sparking deadly clashes at an Italian consulate in Libya.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had asked for Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli to resign late yesterday, when the Italian consulate in the city of Benghazi was set on fire and besieged by hundreds of protesters incensed at the cartoons.

At least 10 people died, the highest death toll in any of the riots held against the caricatures in the Muslim world.

Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini quickly scheduled a visit to Rome’s main mosque for later today, saying he wanted “to reaffirm that we respect every religion, and we expect identical respect", according the ANSA and Apcom news agencies.

Calderoli, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League Party, showed off the T-shirt under his suit this week during an appearance on Italian state television.

The T-shirt was printed with the cartoons satirising Prophet Muhammad that have provoked protests across the Muslim world since they were first published in a Danish newspaper in September. Calderoli’s threat to wear the T-shirt was widely published in Libya, a former Italian colony.

His stand has embarrassed Italy’s centre-right government, which is campaigning for April general elections.

In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Calderoli said he had declined a previous plea to resign from Berlusconi last week. “I’m certainly not changing my mind,” he told the paper.

Under the Italian constitution, the prime minister does not have the power to sack ministers.

In comments reported by another newspaper, Corriere della Sera, Calderoli said he would resign only if Northern League leader Umberto Bossi asked him to do so, and “after receiving a signal from the Islamic world that such a gesture would be useful”.

Calderoli travelled to Bossi’s house in northern Italy on Saturday to meet him and another Northern League minister, Apcom reported.

Fini, who had appealed on Thursday to Calderoli to avoid provoking Muslims, blamed his fellow minister for the violence in Libya.

“It was predictable that Calderoli’s display would trigger reactions in the Arab world,” Fini told La Repubblica. “Sure, no one could have predicted that the reactions would have been so immediate, and above all, so dramatic.”

The front pages of Italian papers were dominated by the story today.

Centre-left politicians also blamed Calderoli for the Benghazi attack, and called for his resignation.

Berlusconi said security had been stepped up at the Northern League’s offices in Italy, the ANSA and Apcom news agencies reported. He spoke after a late night meeting at his office with the foreign minister.

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