Followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather for Friday prayers as they protest against the act of Quran burning, in Baghdad. Photo: Murtadha Al-Sudani.

Iraqis rally as Swedish diplomats leave Baghdad in Quran row

Protesters took to the streets of Baghdad on Friday to denounce Sweden’s permission for protests that desecrate a copy of the Quran, while Stockholm withdrew staff from its Baghdad embassy.

After Friday prayers, hundreds of people gathered in Baghdad’s Sadr City, chanting “Yes, yes to Islam, yes, yes to the Quran.” The rally occurred amidst escalating tensions between Sweden and Iraq over a Sweden-based Iraqi refugee who burnt pages of the Quran outside Stockholm’s main mosque last month.

In the most recent incident on Thursday, Salwan Momika stepped on the Quran without burning it, prompting renewed condemnation and calls for protest across the Muslim world.

Citing security concerns, Sweden decided on Friday to relocate embassy staff and operations from Baghdad to Stockholm after protesters stormed the embassy compound in a pre-dawn raid earlier this week. “The embassy’s operations and its expatriate staff have been temporarily relocated to Stockholm for security reasons,” stated the Swedish foreign ministry.

The Iraqi government condemned the attack on the embassy, and in retaliation for the protest in Sweden, it expelled the Swedish ambassador, vowing to sever ties and suspending the operating license of Swedish telecom giant Ericsson. “The expulsion of the ambassador is too little; we want more,” said protester Sabbah al-Tai, 45, in Sadr City, a working-class district of Baghdad.

The crowd there had gathered at the command of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers were behind the embassy raid late on Wednesday.

Photo: Murtadha Al-Sudani

Under parasols to shield them from the intense summer heat, some protesters set fire to rainbow flags. Sadr believes this act highlights the “double standard” of Western governments that defend LGBTQ rights while permitting the desecration of religious texts.

“Through this demonstration, we want to send a message to the United Nations,” said Amer Shemal, a Sadr City municipality official. He called on member states to “penalize any desecration of holy books – those of Islam, Christianity, Judaism.” Shemal declared, “These are all holy books.”

Late Thursday, Regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran announced in separate statements that they had summoned Swedish diplomats to protest the permission Stockholm had granted for Momika’s actions on the grounds of free speech.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, stated it would urge “the Swedish authorities to take all immediate and necessary measures to stop these disgraceful acts,” according to a foreign ministry statement.

Nasser Kanani, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said Tehran holds “the Swedish government fully responsible for the consequences of inciting the feelings of Muslims around the world.” He condemned “any insult to religious sanctities and holy books anywhere and by anyone,” arguing that “freedom of speech used to attack dignity, morals, and religious sanctities… has no value.”

In Tehran, hundreds of protesters waved Iranian flags and carried copies of Islam’s holy book. They chanted “Down with the United States, Britain, Israel, and Sweden,” while some set the blue-and-yellow Swedish flag ablaze. Protesters in Tehran and other major Iranian cities, including Mashhad in the northeast, Tabriz in the northwest, and Isfahan in the center, heeded authorities’ call for nationwide demonstrations after Friday prayers.

The Quran burning in June, which occurred during the Eid al-Adha holiday, sparked indignation and diplomatic protests across the Muslim world.

On Thursday, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation denounced the latest Stockholm protest as “another provocative attack” that could not be justified under the right to freedom of expression.

Turkey’s foreign ministry called on Sweden to take “dissuasive measures to prevent hate crimes against Islam and its billions of followers.”

In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement, called for the expulsion of the Swedish envoy and the recall of Lebanon’s ambassador to Sweden. “It’s the minimum required,” he stated.