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Iraq, Iran Act Against Sweden After Quran Protests

Hezbollah supporters chant slogans as they raise the Quran during a rally after Friday prayers in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, July 21, 2023.
Hezbollah supporters chant slogans as they raise the Quran during a rally after Friday prayers in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, July 21, 2023.

BAGHDAD - Demonstrators marched in the Iraqi and Iranian capitals Friday to denounce Sweden's permission for protests that desecrate the Quran, as Stockholm withdrew staff from its Baghdad embassy.

Hundreds of people gathered in Baghdad's Sadr City after Friday prayers, chanting "Yes, yes to Islam, yes, yes to the Quran," an AFP correspondent said.

In Tehran, protesters waving Iranian flags and carrying copies of Islam's holy book chanted "Down with the United States, Britain, Israel and Sweden" as some burned the Swedish flag.

Iran said late Friday it will not allow a new Swedish ambassador into the country.

The rallies came amid heightened tensions between Stockholm and Baghdad over a Sweden-based Iraqi refugee who last month burnt pages of the Quran outside Stockholm's main mosque.

In the latest such incident Thursday, the refugee, Salwan Momika, stepped on the Quran but did not burn it. His act triggered renewed condemnation across the Muslim world.

Sweden on Friday cited security concerns in a decision to relocate embassy staff after protesters stormed its embassy compound in a predawn attack this week.

Iraq condemned the embassy attack but retaliated against the Stockholm protest by expelling its ambassador, vowing to sever ties and saying it was suspending the operating license of Swedish telecom giant Ericsson.

But an adviser to the premier told foreign journalists Friday that contractual agreements would be respected, and "no company has been suspended, not even Ericsson."

'Disgraceful acts'

In Baghdad's Sadr City, crowds gathered at the order of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose followers were behind the embassy raid late Wednesday.

"Through this demonstration, we want to send a message to the United Nations," said Amer Shemal, a municipal official, urging member states to "penalize any desecration of holy books — those of Islam, of Christianity, of Judaism."

Regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran said separately late Thursday they had summoned Swedish diplomats to protest Stockholm allowing Momika's actions on free speech grounds.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, said it would urge Sweden "to take all immediate and necessary measures to stop these disgraceful acts," a foreign ministry statement said.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian spoke to his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billstrom, by phone Friday.

"The person who committed this unforgivable insult must be arrested, tried, and held accountable for his actions," a foreign ministry statement quoted him as saying.

A later statement said the Swedish ambassador's mandate in Tehran had ended, and "until the Swedish government takes a serious action over the desecration of [the] Holy Quran, we will not accept the new Swedish ambassador and the Iranian ambassador will not be sent to Sweden."

'Keep burning'

Sweden's decision to authorize the protest has drawn widespread condemnation from Arab and Muslim countries, including Oman and Kuwait, as well as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which both summoned Sweden's charges d'affaires.

The British foreign office also condemned the Quran protest, calling it "deeply insulting to Muslims around the world and completely inappropriate."

Kuwait said it was coordinating with Arab states to hold an emergency meeting of the 57-member Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation to take "concrete and practical" measures so such an insult to the Quran would not be repeated, according to the state news agency.

In an interview published Friday, Momika — who describes himself as an atheist — defended his actions and said they were meant to highlight discrimination against minority groups in Iraq.

"My book-burning was carried out within the bounds of Swedish law," he told French magazine Marianne. "I will keep burning Qurans as long as I am legally allowed to."

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."