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Middle East condemns, protests Quran burning in Sweden by Iraqi refugee

Quran burnings in Sweden have damaged the potential NATO member’s relationship with Turkey.
Women activists of Pakistan Markazi Muslim League take part in a protest rally in Lahore on Jan. 29, 2023.

Several Middle Eastern states on Thursday condemned the recent burning of a Quran in Sweden by an Iraqi refugee, potentially straining relations between the West and the Islamic world, while Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the holy book.

Background: On Wednesday, Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika destroyed a copy of the Quran outside a mosque in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. He stepped on the book and placed strips of bacon on it before lighting it on fire and kicking it while waiving Swedish flags, according to Agence France-Presse. Desecrating the Quran is forbidden in Islam, as is consuming pork.

The incident took place during Islam’s Eid al-Adha holiday as well as the annual hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Reactions: Momika’s actions elicited widespread condemnation in the Middle East on Thursday. Here is a breakdown of reactions in different countries.

Iraq — Iraq’s Foreign Ministry condemned Sweden for allowing the burning to occur and labeled Momika an “extremist,” the official Iraqi News Agency reported.

Shiite Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took it a step further, calling for the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador, “angry” protests outside the Swedish Embassy and Momika to be stripped of his Iraqi nationality. Sadr also called for burning the “meme” flag in response. Iraqi media outlets said this was a reference to the LGBTQ flag. Sadr said burning the flag would “anger” Sweden.

Iran — Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said that “insulting heavenly scriptures is a manifestation of violence, hatred and contrary to the fundamental values of human rights,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Syria — The Syrian Foreign Ministry likewise condemned the action, calling it a “crime,” the official news outlet SANA reported.

Lebanon — The powerful military organization Hezbollah condemned the Quran burning, saying “Swedish authorities are complicit and partners in this crime,” Hezbollah’s news outlet Al-Manar reported.

Egypt — The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the action, noting the “duty of states to prevent incitement and hate crimes,” the state-owned Al-Ahram news outlet reported.

Morocco — Rabat recalled its the ambassador to Sweden for "indefinite consultations" and summoned Sweden's ambassador, as it condemned the "offensive and unacceptable act", a statement from the foreign ministry read. 

Saudi Arabia — The Saudi Foreign Ministry referred to the event as “hateful and repeated acts” in its condemnation, per the official Saudi Press Agency.

United Arab Emirates — The UAE Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Swedish ambassador in an Arabic-language post on its Twitter account. 

Qatar — The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a Twitter statement that it "condemns in the strongest terms the Swedish authorities' permission to burn copies of the Holy Qur'an." 

Kuwait — The Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “perpetrators of such hostile acts should be brought to the book,” according to the official Kuwait News Agency.

Bahrain — The Bahraini Foreign Ministry expressed "strong condemnation of an extremist’s burning of a copy of the Holy Quran," per a statement. 

Yemen — Houthi rebels in Yemen condemned Swedish authorities for the Quran burning, according to the Houthi-controlled Saba news agency. 

Turkey — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his Justice and Development Party, “We will show our reaction in the strongest way possible until a decisive fight against terrorist groups and the enemies of Islam begins.”

Putin also chimed in on the controversy. On Wednesday, he traveled to the Muslim-majority Republic of Dagestan in southern Russia. There, he visited a mosque and received a Quran as a gift, according to Russia’s official TASS news agency.

A Kremlin official made a point to compare Putin’s visit to the event in Sweden.

“The president noted that to infringe on the Quran in any way is a crime in our country. Of course, it is a very important commentary amid what is happening in Sweden. We have a Criminal Code article for that,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday.

Why it matters: The incident could harm Sweden’s relationship with the Middle East, particularly Turkey. Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reported this week that Turkey is putting more pressure on Sweden's pursuit of NATO membership. Sweden has a large Kurdish population, and Turkey has long alleged that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, is active in the country.

Turkey also summoned the Swedish ambassador over a Quran burning outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm in January.

The Quran burning is already leading to protests. Later on Thursday, a few dozen protesters reached the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad, according to AFP.

Putin’s reaction also further demonstrates his efforts to cultivate good relations between Russia and the Muslim world. Russia is particularly seeking better relations with the Gulf and Egypt. Russia already has longstanding ties to Iran and Syria.

Sweden also notably has a large Iraqi population of more than 100,000, including Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Yezidis.

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