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As another Quran burned, Sweden says it’s seeking action on holy book desecrations

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Swedish Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer said his government was evaluating legal avenues to stop the burning of holy books as a form of protest in the country, in the wake of a series of protest acts in which Qurans were set alight, as well as repeated threats to burn Jewish and Christian bibles.

On Monday two men set a Quran alight outside parliament in Stockholm, in a protest similar to previous ones that have sparked tensions between Sweden and Middle Eastern countries, as well as with the country’s own Muslim and Jewish communities.

In a letter to Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the European Jewish Association (EJA), Strömmer wrote that the Swedish government was “closely monitoring developments both nationally and internationally in response to recent events, and conducting “a process of analysis of the legal situation in light of this.”

The letter was posted on Monday to the EJA’s Twitter page. In it, Strömmer said the “desecration of holy books is an offensive and disrespectful act, and a clear provocation.

“The fact that an act is lawful does not mean that it is appropriate,” said the justice minister. “I look forward to continuing the important dialogue with you and with the vibrant Jewish community in Sweden on the fight against antisemitism and all other forms of intolerance.”

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The letter was a response to a missive by Margolin earlier this month to Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in which the Jewish leader condemned the desecration of the Quran and other books as a form of protest.

We appreciate the commitment of Sweden's Minister of Justice to legally look at options and continue dialogue with the EJA on the issue of the holy book burnings.
Read the Minister's letter to our Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin.#justitieminister #GunnarStrömmer pic.twitter.com/hwirB3swqk

— EuropeanJewishAssociation – EUIsraelPublicAffairs (@EJAssociation) July 31, 2023

Swedish police have previously stressed they only grant permits for people to hold public gatherings and not for the activities conducted during the events.

In late June, the Swedish police allowed a Quran burning in front of a mosque in Stockholm to go ahead, citing freedom of speech after a court overturned a ban on Quran burning.

The government then condemned the Quran burning, calling it an “Islamophobic” act after a call for collective measures to avoid future Quran burnings was issued by the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The 57-member body met at its Jeddah headquarters to respond to the incident, in which an Iraqi citizen living in Sweden, Salwan Momika, 37, stomped on the Islamic holy book, filled some pages with bacon and set several others alight.

On Friday, a Swedish woman who received permission from local authorities to burn a Torah book outside Israel’s embassy in Stockholm aborted the act, burning a blank piece of paper instead and declaring that it was a “symbol of the Swedish system that is empty of content.”

When she submitted a request to Stockholm police to hold her protest, the woman had said it was about the “systematic violation of children’s rights in Sweden.” It was unclear why she had chosen to make a Torah book the prop in her protest.

It was the second planned Torah book burning in recent weeks that was canceled at the last minute.

A woman burns a piece of paper in front of the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm on July 28, 2023. (Screen capture/Hedlund Media TV, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

A previous plan earlier this month was approved by authorities, and also drew condemnation from Israel and European Jewry. However, the activist behind that stunt did not go through with it, telling gathered reporters on the day that it had never been his intention to burn Jewish or Christian holy books, only to protest the recent burning of the Quran.

According to a Kan report, earlier this month, senior Swedish officials told their Israeli counterparts they were working to outlaw the burning of religious texts but stressed any such change would take time to implement.

On Sunday, Kristersson said that his government was analyzing the legal situation regarding desecration of the Quran and other holy books, given the animosity such acts are stirring up against Sweden.

“We are in the most serious security policy situation since the Second World War,” Kristersson said. “Here at home we know that states, state-like actors and individuals can take advantage of the situation.”

The OIC has called an emergency remote meeting Monday to discuss the Quran burnings in Sweden and in neighboring Denmark.

‘I will burn it many times’

In Stockholm on Monday, Momika and activist Salwan Najem stomped on the Muslim holy book and set its pages ablaze before slamming it shut, as they did at the June protest outside Stockholm’s main mosque

The duo also staged a similar protest outside Iraq’s embassy in Stockholm on July 20, where they stomped on the religious text but did not burn it.

Swedish police granted a permit for the protest by campaigners, who hope to see the Quran banned in the country, according to local media.

“I will burn it many times, until you ban it,” organizer Salwan Najem told Expressen newspaper.

Salwan Momika holds up a Quran before setting some pages on fire in a protest outside a mosque in Stockholm on June 28, 2023, during the Eid al-Adha holiday. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP)

As in earlier protests, Momika and Najem were the only participants, with a small group of counter-protesters gathering outside the police cordon, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

Mats Eriksson, a spokesman for the Stockholm police, told AFP that the event “had been conducted without any serious public order disturbances.”

During the protest Momika also stomped on a picture of Shiite Muslim cleric and political leader Moqtada Sadr — whose followers had stormed Sweden’s embassy in Baghdad in response to previous desecrations. They had started fires within the compound the night before the July protest.

‘All for attention’

“We saw him standing there again and yelling stuff about the Quran and about Islam, playing with the Quran, and honestly it’s all for attention and it’s pretty obvious,” Tamazight El Yaakoubi, an 18-year-old law student from the Netherlands, told AFP.

“Before we came here we were pretty scared, we were like, Quran burned down, why?” added the Muslim visitor.

“But when we came here almost everyone is full of love and everyone is very respectful.”

Followers of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest on Tahrir Square near Baghdad’s Green Zone a day after an alleged burning of the Quran in Copenhagen, early on July 22, 2023 (Murtaja LATEEF / AFP)

Sweden has already seen its diplomatic relations with several Middle Eastern nations strained over previous protests involving Quran desecrations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose support is crucial for Sweden’s candidacy to join the NATO defense alliance, has expressed deep anger at the Quran burnings.

Tensions flare

Last week, Sweden ordered 15 government bodies including the armed forces, several law enforcement agencies and the tax office to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts.

On Sunday, neighboring Denmark said it would explore legal means of stopping protests involving the burning of holy texts, citing security concerns following a backlash over incidents that saw the Quran desecrated in the country.

Supporters of a radical Islamist party ‘Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan’ burn the representation of Swedish flag during a rally to denounce burning of Islam’s holy book the ‘Quran’, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, July 7, 2023. (AP/Fareed Khan)

Swedish and Danish envoys have been summoned in a slew of Middle Eastern nations.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have called for a meeting, expected to be held on Monday, of the Jeddah-based OIC to address Quran desecrations in both Sweden and Denmark.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said Monday that he had been in contact with several of his counterparts among the 57 member states of the organization ahead of the meeting and sent a letter to all members.

Swedish foreign minister Tobias Billström wrote this letter to the foreign ministers of 57 Muslim countries regarding the Quran burning and that Sweden distances itself from the actions of individuals.

— David Roth-Lindberg (@RothLindberg) July 31, 2023

In a statement, Billstrom said that he had informed them about the process for granting permits for public gatherings in Sweden and that police made such decisions independently.

Billstrom added that he had also reiterated that “the Swedish Government has been very clear in its rejection of the Islamophobic acts carried out by individuals at demonstrations in Sweden.”