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'Not everything that is legal is ethical': Josep Borrell condemns Quran burning and religious hatred

"The desecration of the Quran, or of any other book considered holy, is offensive, disrespectful and a clear provocation," Josep Borrell said in his statement.
"The desecration of the Quran, or of any other book considered holy, is offensive, disrespectful and a clear provocation," Josep Borrell said in his statement. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has spoken up against "any form of incitement to religious hatred and intolerance."

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In a short statement released on Wednesday morning, Borrell expressed his unambiguous condemnation of the recent incidents in Sweden and Denmark that have seen a small group of protesters publicly burn the Quran, Islam's holy book.

"The desecration of the Quran, or of any other book considered holy, is offensive, disrespectful and a clear provocation. Expressions of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance have no place in the European Union," Borrell wrote.

The actions, which have made international headlines, were approved by local authorities because they were deemed compatible with freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate, two pillars of liberal democracies.

Neither Sweden nor Denmark has a blasphemy law in place.

The Muslim world has reacted with anger and outrage, denouncing the burnings as a "hate crime" and a "despicable attack" against a book that is considered to contain the word of God as revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Egypt are among those that have expressed their displeasure and taken diplomatic steps in retaliation. In Baghdad, crowds set fire to the Swedish embassy last week, prompting an evacuation.

In his statement, Borrell acknowledges the "offense to many Muslims" caused by the incidents and says respect for religious diversity is one of the bloc's "core values."

"We continue to stand up for freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, abroad and at home; but not everything that is legal is ethical," Borrell wrote.

"Now is the time to stand together for mutual understanding and respect. These acts committed by individual provocateurs only benefit those who want to divide us and our societies."

Although similar criticism has been voiced by European countries, including by the Swedish and Danish governments, the tricky question of how to balance free speech and respect for religion is still looking for a definitive answer.

Earlier this month, 11 Western countries, including Germany, France, Belgium, Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States, voted against a widely-backed resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that urged nations to "address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence," like the burning of the Quran.

The Western coalition argued the resolution was in conflict with their understanding of human rights and freedom of expression. Some Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Paraguay and Chile, chose to abstain, while a majority of members, like Pakistan, Qatar, Morocco, China, South Africa, Vietnam and Ukraine, were in favour.

"It is neither for the United Nations nor for states to define what is sacred," said French Ambassador Jerome Bonnafont.

Costa Rica, the only non-Western country that voted against the UNHRC text, said that "any expression critical of religions does not in itself constitute incitement to violence and discrimination."

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