Following the burning of the Quran in Sweden last month, Christians in the Muslim world have been vocal in their condemnation.
But some expressions of disapproval may have been forced upon them.
“Christian religious figures … [must] state their positions regarding this explicit crime,” stated the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq. “Their silence puts them in a position of refraining from criminalizing and condemning it.”
The Sunni-based group had plenty of reasons to be offended. The stunt occurred in front of the Grand Mosque of Stockholm on the first day of Eid al-Adha, one of two primary Muslim holidays. And prior to being lit on fire, the Quran was kicked about and stuffed with bacon—provocation against Islam’s prohibition of pork.
But the greatest Iraqi ire may have been that the culprit was one of their own—and a Christian. Salwan Momika, a 37-year-old father of two, sought refuge in Sweden sometime after 2017. But his checkered history had many Middle East Christians criticizing him as well.
In fact, he is an atheist.
His Instagram post announcing his act declared his lack of faith in anything save secular liberalism. Citing the protest as an act of democracy in defense of freedom of speech, he also asked for financial support. And it is reported that upon arrival in Sweden, he volunteered for a far-right party known for its opposition to Muslim migrants.
But earlier, he worked for Shiites.
Momika professed admiration for Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who was killed with Iran’s Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in 2020. Under the PMF’s command he enrolled with Christian compatriots in “The Spirit of Jesus Brigades” in the common fight against ISIS.
He also tried founding his own political party in Iraq, the Syriac Democratic Union. The established, similarly named Christian party in Syria denied any connection to him.
“He is a showoff who wants the spotlight,” said Habib Ephrem, president of the Lebanon-based Syriac League. “He has no specific ideology and stirred up controversy in the Muslim world—for nothing.”
Some observers speculated that Momika’s aim was to create conditions in which it would be impossible to deny his citizenship request and send him back to Iraq.
At least it has given Christians an opportunity for witness.
“What happened in Sweden was an unwholesome use of the concept of personal freedom,” said Ara Badalian, senior pastor of Baptist Church in Baghdad. “True Christianity is characterized by love, tolerance, and rejection of violence and hatred.”
The patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East spoke similarly.
“We call upon the governments of all countries, particularly the Swedish government, not to allow these actions perpetrated in the name of ‘personal freedom,’” stated Mar Awa Royel, who quoted Ephesians 4:32. “This is what the Bible teaches us: Be kind to one another.”
Hind Kabawat, former deputy head of the United Nations-affiliated Syrian Negotiations Commission Office, framed it in terms of the Golden Rule. Momika’s actions serve only to prompt Islamic attacks on Christianity.
“If he delved deeper into the Christian religion to which he claimed to belong, he would find that it prohibits and condemns what he did,” said Kabawat, a Presbyterian from Damascus. “But he does not care where things will go, or how many people will be affected by his behavior.”
Ephrem, in condemnation, also defined his religion in opposition to Momika.
“Love is the essence of Eastern Christianity in its yearning for the dignity, freedom, and equality of every human being,” he said, “and in its respect for diversity, pluralism, and anyone who is ‘other.’”
Love, kindness, and dignity, however, are not always experienced in the reverse.
“It was most certainly a vile act, one that is inexcusable and completely condemned,” stated a bishop in the Chaldean Catholic Church, requesting anonymity to comment freely. “However, it is also a bad precedent, as it goes to show the anger that Christians feel about being persecuted.”
And from Momika’s hometown of Qaraqosh, one resident put it plainly.
“I am not sure if I feel safe anymore,” this anonymous Christian stated.
The Swedish embassy in Baghdad was briefly stormed amid mass demonstrations, which Momika’s one-time Shiite allies called for. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey also issued condemnations—which called into question Sweden’s NATO application.
Protests extended as far as Pakistan, where terrorist threats were issued.
Like their brethren in the Middle East, Christian leaders in Pakistan clearly condemned the burning of the Quran. But they also asked for protection.
Terrorist groups “have been allowed to operate unchecked by the state,” stated Ata-ur-Rehman Saman, coordinator for the National Commission for Justice and Peace, which advocates for human rights on behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan. “This is making life miserable for [Christians].”
One Christian leader, requesting anonymity so as not to jeopardize his ministry, told CT that the situation is not fair. Expressing full sympathy for Muslims about the Quran burning in Sweden, he chided his government for failing to take action against atrocities against Christians.
On the same day two Christian youths were jailed on accusation of blasphemy against Islam, a Christian cleaning woman was raped and murdered. Local believers pray, advocate, and appeal to the authorities—but little gets done.
“I don’t know if we can do anything more than this,” he said. “What is done against us gets swept under the rug.”
And Peter Calvin, a Pakistani Christian leader, is feeling apprehensive.
“We are not afraid, but we feel the heat,” he said. “The Lord has protected us in the past, but it will be several weeks—if not months—until this incident is forgotten.”
Still, putting the anger in context, he praised the Pakistani people. Religion is personal, and convictions are to be respected.
Meanwhile, despite nationwide protests, not one report has surfaced about attacks on the religious minority. In preventing such attacks, he credited both the actions of authorities and the quick condemnation from Christian leaders.
But he also made a distinction.
“We would not react in anger if someone did this to the Bible,” Calvin said. “If they did, our retaliation would be to pray for them.”
They will soon have an opportunity. In Sweden, amid new protest applications to burn the Quran outside a mosque, one person requested to burn the Torah and Bible outside the Israeli embassy.
The furor has impacted Swedish society. With an 11-point rise from February, 53 percent of the population now favors banning the public burning of religious books. The Swedish Christian Council expressed its solidarity with Muslims, and the government is looking into a law that would require at least partial reintroduction of a blasphemy law scrapped in the 1970s.
Kabawat, also the director of the interfaith and peacebuilding program at George Mason University, supports such a measure. Local bodies have done well to condemn Momika, framing the protest as his individual act alone. Reactions from the Muslim world will vary—some ignore while others exploit.
But Sweden must not become a country where insulting religion is tolerated.
Wary of religious freedom issues around the globe, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) treads cautiously.
“We must maximize freedom for every individual, while maximizing welcome for every community,” said Wissam al-Saliby, advocacy officer for the WEA. “We need to have this conversation.”
Heading evangelical engagement with the United Nations in Geneva, Saliby was the first non-state representative to speak at Tuesday’s special UN Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting in response to the Quran burning. He emphasized that human rights are the responsibility of the state, while securing pluralistic societies are the responsibility of all.
So his first word, jointly delivered with the World Council of Churches, was to condemn the incident in Sweden. Back in 2012, the WEA acted similarly against Florida pastor Terry Jones—after the secretary-general first personally visited Jones in a failed effort to stop his Islamophobic protest.
Wherever evangelicals have significant social and political capital, Saliby told CT, they must consistently call for the protection of minorities. Not only is it the right thing to do, but evangelicals are also minorities themselves in much of the world. Blasphemy and anti-conversion laws should be repealed, for example, because the public square must be open to all people of faith as well as to those with none.
Some feared the UN push by offended nations would revive past efforts to forbid “defamation of religions” in international law.
“Muslim states are beyond this now, and behind-the-scenes negotiations were initially constructive,” said Saliby. “But the HRC resolution still included vague language implying a nexus between the desecration of sacred texts and banned hate speech. This led most Western states to vote against the resolution that should have been adopted by consensus, and to emphasize that it is the role of their respective judiciaries to verify whether specific acts amount to banned hate speech.”
The final tally was 28 for and 12 against, with seven abstentions.
Every society—even in the West—defines freedom differently, Saliby continued, and the WEA must keep to an international minimum as it represents evangelical opinion. Hate speech is a significant societal problem, and the global WEA body endorses the UN-backed Rabat Plan of Action to determine when it crosses the line into incitement to violence.
The Christian minimum, however, is drawn instead from the image of God.
“Our ability to reject God and his love,” Saliby said, “establishes the absolute right of freedom of expression, religion, and the changing thereof.”
Secure in God’s love themselves, all Christians should condemn Quran burnings.
“Insulting religions does not reflect our Christian witness,” said Saliby. “Our Lord and Savior is bigger than this.”
Editor’s note: The article was updated with additional information and quotes after the UN vote.