Iraq expels Sweden envoy after another act of Holy Quran’s desecration in Stockholm

Published July 20, 2023
Protesters stand on top of a building next to the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023. — AFP
Protesters stand on top of a building next to the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023. — AFP
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather for a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023. Protesters set fire to Sweden’s embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad early on July 20 ahead of a planned burning of a Koran in Sweden. Swedish authorities approved an assembly to be held later on July 20 outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm, where organisers plan to burn a copy of the Koran as well as an Iraqi flag. (Photo by Ahmad AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather for a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023. Protesters set fire to Sweden’s embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad early on July 20 ahead of a planned burning of a Koran in Sweden. Swedish authorities approved an assembly to be held later on July 20 outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm, where organisers plan to burn a copy of the Koran as well as an Iraqi flag. (Photo by Ahmad AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Iraq on Thursday expelled Sweden’s ambassador after a man stomped on a copy of the Holy Quran at a Stockholm demonstration just hours after the Swedish embassy in Baghdad was torched over the planned protest.

Sweden-based Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika, 37, stomped and kicked the Holy Quran but left the protest without burning it, just weeks after he set fire to pages of the holy book outside Stockholm’s main mosque.

Sweden and other European countries have previously seen protests where far-right and other activists, citing free speech protections, damage or destroy religious symbols or books, commonly sparking protests and heightening diplomatic tensions.

Around the time of Thursday’s protest in Stockholm, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani “instructed the Swedish ambassador in Baghdad to leave Iraqi territory”, according to a statement by his office.

It said the decision was “prompted by the Swedish government’s repeated permission for the burning of the [Holy] Quran, insulting Islamic sanctities and the burning of the Iraqi flag”.

Overnight protesters had breached and set fires within the compound of the Swedish embassy in Baghdad and clashed with riot police, prompting an emergency meeting with the prime minister.

Protesters clash with security forces members as they gather near the Swedish embassy in Baghdad hours after the embassy was stormed and set on fire ahead of an expected Holy Quran burning in Stockholm, in Baghdad, Iraq, July 20, 2023. — Reuters
Protesters clash with security forces members as they gather near the Swedish embassy in Baghdad hours after the embassy was stormed and set on fire ahead of an expected Holy Quran burning in Stockholm, in Baghdad, Iraq, July 20, 2023. — Reuters

The Iraqi government strongly condemned the embassy attack but also issued a warning to Sweden if it allowed the second Holy Quran-burning protest to go forward.

Baghdad had informed Stockholm “that any recurrence of the incident involving the burning of the Holy Qoran on Swedish soil would necessitate severing diplomatic relations,” according to a statement from Sudani’s office.

Protecting the right to protest

Swedish police had granted a permit for the protest in line with Swedish legislation on the rights to freedom of assembly and speech.

“The constitution states that a lot is needed to deny a person a permit for a public gathering so the day before yesterday we granted a permit for a private individual to protest,” Ola Osterling with the Stockholm police told AFP.

On June 28, Salwan Momika also burnt pages of the Holy Quran, outside a Stockholm mosque, sparking a wave of indignation and anger across the Muslim world.

Hundreds massed at the Baghdad embassy, as they had done in response to the previous Stockholm protest, scaled the walls and torched parts of it.

Rock-throwing protesters then clashed with Iraqi riot police who used electric batons and water cannon to disperse them.

One protester, Hassan Ahmed, told AFP that “we mobilised today to denounce the burning of the Holy Quran, which is all about love and faith”.

Some raised the holy book in the air, others held up portraits of Sadr and of his late father, Mohamed al-Sadr, a revered cleric in the majority Shia country.

Calm had returned by morning, when police blocked the road leading to the embassy, and the full extent of the fire damage was not yet clear.

Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr gather for a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023.— AFP
Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr gather for a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023.— AFP

Sweden’s foreign ministry told AFP that all of its employees in Baghdad were “safe” during the unrest.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom later said Iraq’s charge d’affaires would be summoned.

“What has happened is completely unacceptable and the government condemns these attacks in the strongest terms,” he said in a statement.

“Iraqi authorities have an unequivocal obligation to protect diplomatic missions and personnel under the Vienna Convention.”

‘Serious security breach’

Sudani “strongly condemned burning the Swedish embassy in Baghdad, viewing it as a serious security breach requiring immediate action”, the Iraqi government statement said.

“Those accountable for security must be held responsible,” it added, as an Iraqi security source told AFP about 20 protesters had been taken into custody.

Iraq also said it “reaffirms its commitment to ensuring the security and protection of all diplomatic missions, vowing to confront any attacks targeted at them”.

Earlier protests

Late last month, Sadr called for protests against Sweden and the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador after the Holy Quran burning in Stockholm by an Iraqi man.

Swedish police charged the man with agitation against an ethnic or national group. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as an Iraqi refugee seeking to ban the Holy Quran.

Two major protests took place outside of the Swedish embassy in Baghdad in the aftermath of that burning, with protesters breaching the embassy grounds on one occasion.

The governments of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco issued protests about the incident, with Iraq seeking the man’s extradition to face trial in the country.

The United States also condemned it, but added that Sweden’s issuing of the permit supported freedom of expression and was not an endorsement of the action.

Similarly, Pakistan had also strongly condemned the “despicable act” of the desecration of the Holy Quran.

Protesters sit on top of a building next to the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on Thursday. — Reuters
Protesters sit on top of a building next to the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on Thursday. — Reuters

The Foreign Office had stated that such intentional incitement to discrimination, hatred, and violence cannot be justified under the pretext of freedom of expression and protest.

“Under international law, states are duty-bound to prohibit any advocacy of religious hatred, leading to the incitement of violence,” it stated.

The FO had urged the international community and the national governments to undertake “credible and concrete measures to prevent the rising incidents of xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred”.

As protests continued in subsequent days, Swedish police approved a permit for a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Stockholm, which involved burning holy texts outside the Israeli embassy in Stockholm, sparking condemnation from Israel and Jewish organisations.

Initially, the demonstration was planned to involve burning the Torah and the Bible as a response to the Holy Quran burning protest. The application submitted to the police described it as an expression in support of freedom of speech.

However, a day later, the organiser of the protest announced that he would not proceed with it.

He had explained that his intention was in fact to denounce those who burn sacred books such as the Holy Quran in the Nordic country.

“This is a response to the people who burn the [Holy] Quran. I want to show that freedom of expression has limits that must be taken into account,” the Swedish resident of Syrian origin had said.

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