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Sweden: Muslim protester says he never wanted to burn Torah

July 15, 2023

After announcing his plans to burn the Torah and the Bible in Stockholm, the 32-year-old man said this was merely a stunt to draw attention to the limits of free speech.

A man talks to the media outside the Isaeli embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, July 15, 2023
The man who registered the protest said he never intended to burn any booksImage: Magnus Lejhall/TT News Agency/AP Photo/picture alliance

The man who vowed to burn the Torah and the Bible outside the Israeli Embassy in Sweden's capital, Stockholm, said Saturday he had chosen not to set fire to the religious scriptures, Swedish media have reported.

Despite being given permission by Stockholm police to hold a three-person protest, the man said he had no intention of burning any books and instead threw a lighter to the ground.

"I never thought I would burn any books. I'm a Muslim, we don't burn [books]," broadcaster SVT cited the man as telling those gathered for the planned desecration.

The 32-year-old Ahmad A. said the real reason for the protest was to draw attention to the difference between freedom of speech and offending other ethnic groups.

"This is a response to the people who burn the Koran. I want to show that freedom of expression has limits that must be taken into account," explained the Swedish resident of Syrian origin.

"I want to show that we have to respect each other, we live in the same society. If I burn the Torah, another the Bible, another the Koran, there will be war here. What I wanted to show is that it's not right to do it," he added.

The planned Torah burning was due to take place just days after another man set fire to pages of the Quran, Islam's holy book, drawing widespread condemnation from Muslims worldwide.

Israeli, Jewish leaders denounce plans

Speaking ahead of the latest planned burning, Israeli President Isaac Herzog described it as an act of "pure hate."

"As the president of the state of Israel, I condemned the burning of the Quran, sacred to Muslims the world over, and I am now heartbroken that the same fate awaits a Jewish Bible, the eternal book of the Jewish people," Herzog said on Friday.

"Permitting the defacement of sacred texts is not an exercise in freedom of expression, it is blatant incitement and an act of pure hate," Herzog said. "The whole world must join together in clearly condemning this repulsive act."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, "The State of Israel takes this shameful decision, which harms the Holy of Holies of the Jewish people, very seriously." 

Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, said granting the permit for the burning of a Torah was "not freedom of expression but antisemitism."

The European Jewish Congress also issued a condemnation, saying that "provocative, racist, antisemitic and sickening acts such as these have no place in any civilized society."

Why is Sweden allowing the burning of religious texts?

Stockholm police granted a permit to an applicant to hold a public rally to burn a Jewish and a Christian Bible on Saturday.

Seen as blasphemous by religious followers, others regard the book burning as an example of freedom of expression, which is protected by the Swedish constitution. Blasphemy laws in Sweden were abandoned in the 1970s.

The man who filed the request for Saturday's protest said the move was in response to the Quran burning outside a Stockholm mosque last month by an Iraqi Christian immigrant during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

After that incident, Swedish authorities said they had opened an investigation over "agitation against an ethnic group," noting that the man had carried out the burning very close to the mosque.

A similar protest by a far-right activist was held outside Turkey's Embassy in Stockholm earlier this year, complicating Sweden's efforts to convince Turkey to let it join NATO.

Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco summoned Swedish ambassadors in protest at the Quran-burning incident, which led to an emergency meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

On Wednesday, the UN's top human rights body overwhelmingly approved a measure calling on countries to do more to prevent religious hatred in the wake of the Quran burnings.

Sweden's government also condemned the Quran burning as "Islamophobic," while noting that the country had a "constitutionally protected right to freedom of assembly, expression and demonstration."

Police say hands tied

Meanwhile, Stockholm police stressed on Friday that they can only refuse to approve a public gathering if it causes major disruptions or is a risk to public safety.

"The police does not issue permits to burn various religious texts — the police issues permits to hold a public gathering and express an opinion," Carina Skagerlind, press officer for Stockholm police, told the AFP news agency. "An important distinction."

"Sweden is and must be a country where people of different faiths — or no faith — can live together side by side in mutual respect," said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, in a meeting with representatives of religious communities, as reported by Haaretz newspaper.

"Let us together fight the hatred in society, which drives people to burn the Quran, the Bible or the Torah, and in places and times that are most offensive. Instead, let's show each other respect."

mm/sms (AFP, AP, dpa)