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UN rights body passes motion on Quran burning ignoring opposition


An Iraqi refugee burning Quran with bacon outside a Swedish mosque

The UN Human Rights Council, deeply divided, has passed a controversial resolution urging countries to address and combat acts and advocacy of religious hatred. The resolution comes in response to incidents of Quran burning in Sweden.


The resolution faced strong opposition from the US, EU, and other Western nations, who argued that it contradicted laws protecting free speech.


Despite the opposition, the resolution was approved, with 28 countries voting in favour, 12 against, and seven abstaining.


The outrage was sparked by an Iraqi-born protester who tore pages from the Quran, defiled them with his shoes, and set them ablaze outside a mosque in Stockholm during the Eid al-Adha holiday. The Swedish embassy in Baghdad was briefly stormed, Iran delayed sending a new ambassador to Stockholm, and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned Swedish authorities, calling for a debate on the matter at the UN Human Rights Council.


Turkey also expressed its anger, citing the "vile protests against the holy book" in Sweden as one of the reasons for initially withholding approval of Sweden's application to join NATO. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to set aside his veto and support Sweden's application.


Similar protests have occurred in Stockholm and Malmö in the past, and Swedish police have received applications from individuals seeking to burn religious texts, including the Quran, Bible, and Torah.


During a recent address to the UN Council, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari described such acts as incitement to religious hatred, discrimination, and violence, occurring with government support and impunity. Ministers from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia echoed this sentiment.


While condemning the burnings, western countries defended the principle of free speech. The German envoy referred to the acts as a "dreadful provocation" but emphasized that free speech also involves tolerating opinions that may be distressing. The French envoy stated that human rights are meant to protect individuals, not religions or symbols.


Following the resolution vote, the US envoy to the council, Michèle Taylor, expressed disappointment, suggesting that with more time and open discussion, a consensus could have been reached.


The resolution condemns all forms of religious hatred, including public and premeditated acts of Quran desecration, and calls for holding the responsible parties accountable.


Some liberal commentators in Sweden argue that these protests should be considered hate speech, which is prohibited when targeting race or ethnicity. However, many others believe that criticizing religion, even if offensive to believers, must be permitted, and Sweden should resist any pressure to reintroduce blasphemy laws.

Swedish police have previously attempted to ban Quran-burning protests but have been overruled by the courts on the grounds of free speech. Last month's protest was allowed because the security risks were not deemed sufficient to justify rejecting the request under current laws.


Sweden's government issued a statement strongly condemning the Islamophobic nature of the act, asserting that it did not reflect their views. However, this drew strong criticism from advocates of free speech who pointed out that the individual who carried out the protest had acted within the bounds of the law and exercised their constitutional freedom of expression.


Officials in Stockholm are concerned that the situation may escalate, reminiscent of the controversy over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper in 2005.


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