UNITED NATIONS (AP) — 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. Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, a 31-year architect, praised Morsi's condemnation of the Assad regime, but questioned his assertions about free speech.
"How can he talk about freedom of expression when there are many protesters in detention in Egypt, including minors, and when people are locked up for the so-called contempt of religion?" she said.
The head of the Arab League, meanwhile, called for the international community to criminalize blasphemy, warning that insults to religion pose a serious threat to global peace and security.
Nabil Elaraby's comments to a special session of the U.N. Security Council put him at direct odds with the United States and its Western allies, which are resolutely opposed to restrictions on freedom of expression. However, Elaraby said that if the West has criminalized acts that result in bodily harm, it must also criminalize acts that cause "psychological and spiritual harm."
Earlier Wednesday, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for past fiery denunciations of the United States and Israel, spoke at length about his vision for a new world order without the "hegemony of arrogance."
Of Israel, he cited what he termed the "continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation."
The U.S. delegation boycotted Ahmadinejad's speech in response to the "paranoid theories and repulsive slurs against Israel" included in a separate address delivered by the Iranian president on Monday.
"It's particularly unfortunate that Mr. Ahmadinejad will have the platform of the U.N. General Assembly on Yom Kippur, which is why the United States has decided not to attend," Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., said in a statement.
Thousands of protesters in yellow vests emblazoned with photos of Iranian dissidents they said were killed by the Iranian regime gathered outside U.N. headquarters during the Iranian leader's speech. Speakers included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.
Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was threatened by members of the protest crowd as he walked near the United Nations. He was confronted by the angry mob, said New York police spokesman Paul Browne. The diplomat flagged down police officers, who helped him get to a safe spot. Browne said the threats were believed to have been verbal.
In his speech on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad did not refer to Iran's nuclear program. Israel and Western nations contend that Tehran is using what it insists is a peaceful nuclear program as a cover for developing the ability to build atomic weapons.
Tough sanctions have been imposed on Iran as punishment for its failure to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to prove the peaceful nature of its drive to enrich uranium to levels that could be used to build a nuclear weapon.
Israel has threatened a military strike against Iranian nuclear installations, but Obama insists there is still time to solve the dispute through diplomacy. He has vowed, however, to stop Tehran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal.
Outside the U.N., Alex Mohammed, 40, a restaurant manager from Chicago, stood next to a mock jail cell with a noose next to it, and a cartoon of Ahmadinejad standing under a series of hanged Iranians' legs and the inscription: "We don't have political prisoners in Iran — anymore."
"It's getting worse in Iran, because the dictator is taking away more freedoms, including freedom of speech, and jailing journalists," said Mohammed, who has family in Tehran.
Associated Press writers Maggie Fick and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Verena Dobnik in New York, and David Stringer and Ron DePasquale at the United Nations contributed to this report.