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Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped into the cartoon controversy and reined in his own senior ministers who have been critical of Canadian publications that have published the images of the Prophet Mohammed.

In a one-paragraph statement issued yesterday, the Prime Minister said Canadians have the right to free speech as well as the right to voice their opinions about the free speech of others.

"I regret the publication of this material in several media outlets," Mr. Harper said, "While we understand this issue is divisive, our government wishes that people be respectful of the beliefs of others.

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"I commend the Canadian Muslim community for voicing its opinion peacefully, respectfully and democratically," Mr. Harper concluded.

The Western Standard, a Calgary-based newsmagazine with a circulation of 40,000, has come under fire this week for publishing eight of the cartoons that many Muslims have deemed offensive.

Canada hasn't been rocked by vandalism, riots and violence that have plagued other countries as momentum grew around the cartoons, which first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last year.

But certainly there is fear the violence could hit at least a little closer to home.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said while freedom of expression is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it must be "exercised responsibly.

"We commend those Canadians who have acted appropriately," he said in a statement.

Some businesses, including Air Canada, Indigo Books & Music and McNally Robinson book stores, have said they will ban the upcoming issue of the Western Standard from their premises. (In 2001, Indigo banned Hitler's Mein Kampf.)

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Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor expressed concern on Monday that by publishing the cartoons, the Western Standard has heightened the risk to Canadian troops in Afghanistan, where roadside explosives are common and suicide bombers are working.

"It doesn't help," he told a reporter, "Radicals in Syria and Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, they get people roused up because their religion's being offended. We don't need any more risk in the area."

Yesterday, the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations warned that reprinting the drawings could put Canada's soldiers in even greater danger.

Ezra Levant, publisher of the Western Standard, said the Prime Minister's statement reaffirms Canada's commitment to free speech and highlights a point he is trying to make in publishing the cartoons: The proper response to free speech is more free speech.

"I would regard this as a very heartening response and I would actually regard it as a bit of a slap on the wrist to Gordon O'Connor," Mr. Levant said yesterday.

"The reason we have the Canadian Forces and the diplomatic corps is to protect our Canadian freedoms at home and expand them abroad," he added.

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