A Muslim activist who had received permission to burn a Torah and a Bible outside the Israeli embassy in Sweden on Saturday said he was backing off from the move, adding that he only wanted to draw attention to the recent burning of the Quran in the country.
The man, identified as Ahmad Alush, 32, had received permission from Swedish authorities to perform the act, drawing widespread condemnation and protest from Israel and Jewish groups, among others.
But Alush arrived outside the Israeli diplomatic mission on Saturday clutching only a copy of the Quran and said it was never his intention to burn Jewish or Christian holy books, only to protest the recent burning of the Quran.
“It is against the Quran to burn and I will not burn. No one should do that,” Alush, who is of Syrian origin, told reporters gathered at the scene.
“This is a response to the people who burn the Quran. I want to show that freedom of expression has limits that must be taken into account,” he added.
“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 Quran, there will be war here. What I wanted to show is that it’s not right to do it.”
Swedish public broadcaster SVT said Alush threw a lighter in his hand to the ground and said he didn’t need it.
Local police on Friday said they had approved an application from an individual in his 30s to hold a rally outside Israel’s embassy in Stockholm on Saturday, where a Jewish Torah and Christian Bible would be burned.
In his request for Saturday’s protest, the man said he wanted to burn the Torah and the Bible outside the Israeli embassy in response to a Quran burning outside a Stockholm mosque last month by an Iraqi immigrant. He called it “a symbolic gathering for the sake of freedom of speech.”
The Swedish decision to grant him permission to burn the Torah had sparked widespread condemnation and outrage. According to the Kan public broadcaster, senior Swedish officials told their Israeli counterparts they were working to outlaw the burning of religious texts but stressed any such change would take a while to implement.
US antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt said Friday the burning would “create an environment of fear.”
Lipstadt told The Times of Israel the US is “deeply concerned” and “condemns” the planned Torah burning.
“While the United States supports freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly as elements of democracy as well as supporting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all, such acts will create an environment of fear,” the US envoy continued. “This will impact the ability of Jews and members of other religious minority groups from freely exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief in Sweden.”
In Sweden, home to some 15,000-20,000 Jews, the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities deplored the police decision to allow the act, drawing a direct line to the gathering from Europe’s long history of deadly anti-Jewish hatred.
“Our tragic European history links the burning of Jewish books with pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions and the Holocaust,” it wrote. The Swedish Jewish Youth Association also condemned what it said was a “hateful and despicable act.”
“There are better ways to express freedom of speech than by desecrating sacred texts,” it tweeted.
Jewish groups in Europe, the US, Israel and elsewhere had called on Sweden to back off the planned burning, many of them noting the continent’s history of intolerance toward Jews, including burning Jewish religious texts.
“It is clear that the act of burning a bible in front of [the] Israeli embassy [is] anything but peaceful,” the European Jewish Association said in a joint statement with the European Coalition for Israel, a Christian Zionist group. “It is instead provocative, grossly inappropriate and designed solely to offend.”
The European Jewish Congress also issued a statement strongly condemning the act.
“Provocative, racist, antisemitic and sickening acts such as these have no place in any civilized society,” EJC president Ariel Muzicant said.
“Stamping on the deepest religious and cultural sensibilities of people is the clearest expression possible to send a message that minorities are unwelcome and unrespected,” Muzicant added. “These actions, based on contorted and specious free speech arguments, are a disgrace to Sweden and any democratic government worthy of the name should prevent it.”
Israeli officials spoke out against the planned arsons earlier Friday, calling on Swedish authorities to reverse the police decision.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called the decision “a hate crime, a provocation causing grave harm to the Jewish people and Jewish tradition.”
“I call on the authorities in Sweden to prevent this shameful act,” he said.
Two weeks ago, the Swedish police allowed a Quran burning in front of a mosque in Stockholm to go ahead, citing freedom of speech after a court overturned a ban on Quran burning.
Sweden’s government condemned the Quran burning, calling it an “Islamophobic” act after a call for collective measures to avoid future Quran burnings was issued by the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
The 57-member body met at its Jeddah headquarters to respond to the incident, in which an Iraqi citizen living in Sweden, Salwan Momika, 37, stomped on the Islamic holy book, filled some pages with bacon and set several others alight.
“The burning of the Quran, or any other holy text, is an offensive and disrespectful act and a clear provocation. Expressions of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance have no place in Sweden or in Europe,” the Swedish foreign ministry said.
At the same time, the ministry added that Sweden has a “constitutionally protected right to freedom of assembly, expression and demonstration.”
Authorities later said they had opened an investigation over “agitation against an ethnic group,” noting that Momika had burnt pages from the Islamic holy book very close to Stockholm’s largest mosque.