Iraqi security forces on Saturday dispersed about 1,000 supporters of Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr who tried to march to Baghdad’s Green Zone housing foreign embassies, believing a Holy Quran had been desecrated in Denmark.
The protesters were reacting to reports of an apparent desecration of the Muslim holy book for the third time in a month, with the first two in Sweden already raising diplomatic tensions.
On its Facebook page, the extreme right group Danske Patrioter posted on Friday a video of a man desecrating what seemed to be a Holy Quran and trampling an Iraqi flag.
Copenhagen police deputy chief Trine Fisker told AFP that “not more than a handful” of protesters had gathered on Friday across from the Iraqi embassy.
“I can also confirm there was a book burnt. We do not know which book it was,” she said. “It was quite peaceful.”
Sadr, who has a following of millions among the country’s majority Shia population and wields great influence over national politics, has urged action after Holy Quran desecrations in Sweden.
His followers on Saturday reacted to the news from Copenhagen, and gathered in the pre-dawn darkness at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, some carrying portraits of Sadr.
“Yes, yes to the Quran!” shouted the protesters, mostly young men.
Security forces cut two bridges leading to the high-security Green Zone where governmental institutions and foreign embassies are located. The demonstrators tried to force their way through before officers pushed them back.
The protesters eventually dispersed several hours later, after scuffles erupted, an interior ministry official told AFP, speaking anonymously because he was not allowed to brief the media.
Protesters were trying to reach the embassy of Denmark, the official said.
Early Saturday, Iraq’s foreign ministry had condemned “the desecration of the Holy Quran and the Iraqi flag in front of the embassy of Iraq in Denmark”.
The ministry’s statement said that “these actions provoke reactions and put all the parties in delicate situations”.
A separate statement said “we cannot allow to happen again” what occurred at the Swedish embassy.
It reaffirmed Baghdad’s “full commitment” to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and said it guarantees “the protection and security provided to diplomatic teams”.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said in a tweet that he and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian “jointly expressed” their strong condemnation of the recent “abhorrent act of desecration” in Sweden.
“I underlined that such Islamophobic incidents incite religious intolerance, hatred and incitement and cannot be justified under any pretext,” Bilawal said.
He added that both countries resolved to work together and with other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in “confronting and combatting the menace of Islamophobia”.
Protesters had also gathered on Friday in Iran’s Tehran, where they chanted “Down with the United States, Britain, Israel and Sweden”. Some burned the Swedish flag.
Iran said late Friday that it will not allow a new Swedish ambassador into the country.
Following the Copenhagen incident, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani on Saturday said: “The Danish government is responsible for preventing insults to the Holy Koran and Islamic sanctities, as well as prosecuting and punishing those who insult them… the Islamic world is waiting for the practical action of the Danish government. “
Separately, hundreds of Sadr supporters were behind the storming and burning of Sweden’s embassy in Iraq’s Baghdad on early Thursday, over another planned desecration of the Muslim holy book in Sweden, weeks after the same protester there desecrated the Holy Quran.
Iraq had condemned the attack on Sweden’s embassy but expelled Stockholm’s ambassador. Later, Sweden said it had temporarily moved its seconded embassy staff and operations from Baghdad to Sweden for safety reasons.
Sadr supporters had rallied by their hundreds in Baghdad’s Sadr City after Friday prayers, chanting support for the Holy Quran.
The chameleon-like figure, who has made several reversals of position over the years, in April had said he was “freezing” his movement for a year, though the decision would not affect religious activities. Last August, he said he was retiring from politics.
The actions of Sweden-based Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika had triggered condemnation across the Muslim world.
Protests also erupted in Tehran and Lebanon. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, summoned Sweden’s charge d’affaires on Friday to protest “the repeated attacks and abuses on copies of the Holy Quran committed by extremists” in Sweden, the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi said.
Iran said late Friday it will not allow a new Swedish ambassador into the country and its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a statement on Saturday called Momika’s protest in Sweden “dangerous”.
“The severest punishment for the perpetrator of this crime is what all Islamic scholars agree upon,” Khamenei added, calling for Momika to stand trial in an Islamic country.
Pakistan had also condemned the “despicable act” after the first sacrilegious act was carried out towards the end of June.
A series of rallies were also organised in Rawalpindi and Islamabad by political and religious parties, traders, journalists and members of civil society on July 7 to condemn the desecration.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom called Momika’s protest “a clear provocation” that “in no way reflects the Swedish government’s opinions”, while also stressing a “constitutional right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate”.
Meanwhile, there is limited political will in Sweden to ban Holy Quran desecrations that have upset large parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan, and it would be complicated to do even if there were backing for such a move, experts and politicians had said on Friday.
Sweden’s laws, current politics and social traditions mean such incidents are unlikely to be halted any time soon. Swedish courts have ruled that police cannot stop the desecration of holy scriptures.
While the two latest Holy Quran desecrations could be tested in court for inciting hate, it is widely believed the act is protected by the constitution’s far-reaching freedom of speech laws.
To change the constitution is a lengthy process that requires a vote in parliament, then a general election, and then another vote in parliament.
Even so, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s government said last week it would examine if there was reason to change the Public Order Act to make it possible for police to stop Holy Quran desecrations, amid concerns over national security.
The issue of Holy Quran desecrations has potentially jeopardised Sweden’s accession to Nato. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has previously warned that Sweden would not be accepted into the military alliance if Holy Quran desecrations took place there.
Turkiye, alongside Hungary, has so far held up Sweden’s bid — launched in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — although Erdogan said earlier this month that he would send the Nordic country’s Nato application to parliament.
The 57-nation OIC introduced a resolution that passed in the United Nations Human Rights Council on July 12 calling for states to review their laws that prevent prosecution of “religious hatred”.
Deputy Prime Minister Ebba Busch of the Christian Democrats said earlier this month the Sweden alone determined its legislation and would not be influenced by other countries’ faiths or laws.
“Sweden does not bend its back to Islamism. Burning scriptures is reprehensible but not illegal,” she tweeted on July 7 after a Holy Quran desecration outside a Stockholm mosque.
Any potential law change that would make such acts illegal is also highly unlikely to pass because the minority government is dependent on the support of the Sweden Democrats, the second biggest party in parliament after last year’s elections, which is anti-immigrant and critical of Islam.
“The Sweden Democrats have not considered introducing any such law in Sweden, nor do we intend to support any such legislation if put forward in parliament,” Sweden Democrat Party Secretary Richard Jomshof told Reuters in an emailed statement.
Holy Quran desecrations are permitted in Sweden, Denmark and Norway but not in neighbouring Finland where desecration of holy scriptures in public is illegal. Sweden had a similar law but removed it in the 1970s.
Sweden has laws banning hate speech against ethnic, national and religious groups and people on grounds of sexual orientation. However, the desecration of holy scriptures has thus far not qualified as hate speech but has been seen as acceptable criticism.
Journalist and freedom of speech expert Nils Funcke said changes to the Public Order Act as mooted by the government would be very hard to introduce and would likely clash with Sweden’s constitutionally protected freedom of assembly.
“Good luck writing such a law. There won’t be many demonstrations left if we listen to threats from extremist organisations in countries like Iran or Iraq,” he told Reuters.
“And how would you be able to have a demonstration against someone like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin? That would surely endanger Sweden’s safety,” he added.
A 2022 Gallup poll found that Sweden was the country in the world with the highest percentage of citizens stating they do not believe in God. Sweden abolished laws that made it punishable to criticise or mock religion and the royal family in the 1970s.
“It is our tradition,” Funcke told Reuters.