Denmark charges man who burned Quran with blasphemy

A copy for the holy Quran is displayed in the Egypt's Museum of Islamic Art.
A copy for the holy Quran is displayed in the Egypt's Museum of Islamic Art.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) A 42-year-old man who burned a Quran and posted a video of it on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in Denmark, a striking decision by prosecutors in a country that is largely secular but has grappled with the role of Islam in public life.

The decision stunned many Danes: No one has been convicted of blasphemy in Denmark since 1946, and the country has a long tradition of free speech; burning the flag is not a punishable crime.

Simmering tensions between religious sensitivities and free speech have been a theme in Denmark since 2005, when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The depictions outraged many Muslims, who consider such representations to be blasphemous.

The decision to charge the Quran burner was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg, on the Jutland peninsula, and had to be approved by the country's attorney general.

The blasphemy law has been invoked only a handful of times since its creation in 1866, most recently in 1971.

In the current case, the suspect, who was not identified by the authorities but called himself John Salvesen on Facebook, uploaded a video of a Quran being burned in his backyard.

In the four-minute, 15-second clip, the clicking sounds of a lighter are heard before flames engulf the large leather-bound book.

The video did not get widespread attention at the time. The defendant - his true name is still not clear - was charged last year with hate speech, but the indictment was later changed to blasphemy, a decision prosecutors announced on Wednesday.

His lawyer, Rasmus Paludan, argued that his client had burned the Quran in "self-defense."

"The Quran contains passages on how Mohammed's followers must kill the infidel, i.e. the Danes," he said. "Therefore, it's an act of self-defence to burn a book that in such a way incites war and violence."

Jan Reckendorff, the regional prosecutor who brought the charge against Salvesen, said in a statement: "It is the prosecution's view that circumstances involving the burning of holy books such as the Bible and the Quran can in certain cases be a violation of the blasphemy clause, which covers public scorn or mockery of religion."