Mary Altaffer, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS — Egypt's new President Mohammed Morsi assigned himself the heavyweight's role in the Middle East on Wednesday, declaring in his first speech to the United Nations that the civil war raging in Syria is the "tragedy of the age" and must be brought to an end.
In a wide-ranging address that touched on all major issues confronting the region, Morsi also decried Israeli settlement-building on territory Palestinians claim for a future state and condemned a film produced in the United States that denigrates Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
He urged all U.N. member nations to join in an effort to end what he called "the catastrophe in Syria" that pits the regime of Bashar Assad against opposition forces trying to end 40 years of dictatorship. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month conflict.
Morsi has called for Assad to step down and said Wednesday that "the bloodshed in Syria and the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded must be stopped."
Morsi, an Islamist and key member of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, opened his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly by celebrating himself as Egypt's first democratically elected leader who was swept into office after what he called a "great, peaceful revolution" that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
He then quickly inserted himself into the thorniest issues in the Middle East, demanding that the United Nations grant membership to the Palestinians, with or without a peace agreement with Israel.
"The fruits of dignity and freedom must not remain far from the Palestinian people," he said, adding that it was "shameful" that U.N. resolutions are not enforced.
The Palestinians are expected to again ask for U.N. recognition and formally make application to the world body in November, after the U.S. presidential election. President Barack Obama said when the Palestinians sought recognition last year that Washington would block the move until there was a peace deal with Israel. The focus of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been on hold for four years, is a two-state solution that would formally grant the Palestinians the rights of an independent country.
In his bid to end the violence in Syria, Morsi has invited Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia to join a contact group, though the Saudis have not yet participated and the fighting in Syria continues unabated. While Morsi wants Assad to step aside, he said Wednesday that he opposes any foreign military intervention.
The U.N. Security Council, which could call for intervention or global sanctions against Syria, is deadlocked because Russia, Assad's main protector, and China have blocked a series of resolutions brought by Western governments.
Morsi also denounced as an obscenity the anti-Islam video that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, a child molester and a fraud, insisting that freedom of expression does not allow for attacks on any religion.
He also condemned the violence that swept Muslim countries last week in reaction to the video. At least 51 people were killed, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans targeted in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
"Egypt respects freedom of expression. One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed toward one specific religion or culture. A freedom of expression that tackles extremism and violence. Not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others," Morsi said.
He appeared to have been responding to Obama's General Assembly speech Tuesday in which the U.S. leader again condemned the video but sternly defended the U.S. Constitution's free speech guarantees.
In Cairo, Egyptians watched Morsi's speech closely for signs of how he would conduct his presidency. Abdel-Mohsen, a 31-year architect, praised Morsi's condemnation of the Assad regime, but questioned his assertions about free speech.
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