Baghdad (Reuters) – Thousands of supporters of Shi’ite populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr held a protest in front of the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad on Friday to demand an end to diplomatic ties after a man set fire to a Koran outside a mosque in Stockholm.
Protesters carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags, and chanted, “Yes, yes to the Koran, Moqtada, Moqtada”.
People burned large rainbow-coloured flags representing the LGBT community after standing on them while verses from the Koran were recited in the background.
There was no apparent link between the attack and the LGBT community, but Sadr had urged his followers to keep burning the rainbow-coloured flag until the eighth day of the lunar month of Muharram because “it is what irritates them the most”.
There was a smaller protest in the southern province of Dhi Qar.
Sadr had called on Thursday for “mass angry protests against the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad” and to demand the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador and the cutting of ties with Sweden.
“If you are defending freedoms and human rights so you should not have double standards,” said Sadr in a statement read by a Sadist leader at the rally on Friday.
“If you say that burning the flag of homosexuals is considered a major hate crime … then why don’t you consider burning the Koran a major hate crime?”
Swedish police charged the man who burned the holy book with agitation against an ethnic or national group. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as an Iraqi refugee seeking to ban it.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry summoned Sweden’s ambassador on Thursday, urging the Swedish government to hand the man over so he could be tried in accordance with Iraqi law.
While Swedish police have rejected several recent applications for anti-Koran demonstrations, courts have overruled those decisions, saying they infringed on freedom of speech.
In its permit for Wednesday’s demonstration, Swedish police said that while it “may have foreign policy consequences”, the security risks and consequences linked to a Koran burning were not of such a nature that the application should be rejected.
The governments of several Muslim countries, including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco have issued protests about the incident. The United States also condemned it, but said that issuing the permit supported freedom of expression and was not an endorsement of the action.
“We Muslims believe in the Koran, the Torah, the Bible and the Zabur. They are all divine books and a red line. … But they burned the Koran,” said protester Sayed Ali.
“We call on the Iraq government to withdraw the Iraqi ambassador, close the embassy and expel the Swedish ambassador. … We condemn this cowardly act.”