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Man sets fire to Koran pages outside Stockholm mosque

A man set fire to several pages of the Koran outside Stockholm’s main mosque Wednesday, after Swedish police granted a permit for the protest which coincided with the start of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

The police said in its written decision that the security risks associated with the burning “were not of a nature that could justify, under current laws, a decision to reject the request”.

The protest unfolded calmly.

Salwan Momika, 37, who fled from Iraq to Sweden several years ago, had asked police for permission to burn the Muslim holy book “to express my opinion about the Koran”.

Ahead of the protest, Momika told news agency TT he also wanted to highlight the importance of freedom of speech.

“This is democracy. It is in danger if they tell us we can’t do this,” Momika said.

Under a heavy police presence and with around a dozen opponents shouting at him in Arabic, Momika, dressed in beige trousers and a shirt, addressed the crowd of several dozen through a megaphone.

At various times, he stomped on the Koran, put strips of bacon in it, lit a few pages on fire before slamming it shut, and kicked it like a football, while waving Swedish flags, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.

Police had cordoned off an area in a park next to the mosque separating Momika and a co-protester from the crowd.

– ‘Higher priority target’ –

Noa Omran, a 32-year-old artist from Stockholm, called the protest “absolutely insane”.

“It’s just hatred masquerading in the name of democracy and freedom which it isn’t,” the woman, who said her mother was from a Muslim background, told AFP at the scene.

Social worker Lotta Jahn, 43, also said the burning should not be tolerated.

“We just have to say stop. It’s not OK to humiliate other people,” she said.

The police authorisation for the protest came two weeks after a Swedish appeals court rejected the police’s decision to deny permits for two demonstrations in Stockholm which were to include Koran burnings.

Police had at the time cited security concerns, following a burning of the Muslim holy book outside Turkey’s embassy in January which led to weeks of protests, calls for a boycott of Swedish goods and further stalled Sweden’s NATO membership bid.

Similar acts have in the past sparked violent protests and outrage across the Muslim world.

Police argued the January protest had made Sweden “a higher priority target for attacks”.

Turkey, which has blocked the country’s NATO bid due to what it perceives as Stockholm’s failure to crack down on Kurdish groups it considers “terrorists”, took particular offence that police had authorised the January demonstration.

Police then banned two subsequent requests for protests involving Koran burnings — one by Momika and one by an organisation, outside the Turkish and Iraqi embassies in Stockholm in February.

The appeals court in mid-June ruled that police were wrong to ban those, saying the security concerns cited by police were not sufficient to ban the events.

– ‘Burn it’ –

Momika had said he would seek to burn the Koran again after his previous request was blocked.

“I want to protest in front of the large mosque in Stockholm, and I want to express my opinion about the Koran… I will tear up the Koran and burn it,” Momika, wrote in the protest application to police, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

Speaking to newspaper Aftonbladet in April, Momika — who fled to Sweden from Iraq — said his intention was not to sabotage the Swedish NATO bid and had considered waiting to stage his protest until after Sweden had joined the alliance.

“I don’t want to harm this country that received me and preserved my dignity,” Momika told the newspaper.

Swedish police had granted a permit for the January protest, which was organised by Rasmus Paludan, a Swedish-Danish activist who has already been convicted for racist abuse.

Paludan also provoked rioting in Sweden last year when he went on a tour of the country and publicly burned copies of Islam’s holy book.

Politicians in the Nordic country have criticised Koran burnings but have also adamantly defended the right to freedom of expression.