Muslim protestors chant slogans during a rally to denounce burning of Islam's holy book 'Quran', in Peshawar, Pakistan, Friday, July 7, 2023. Muslims rallied in across Pakistan to observe a "Day of the Sanctity of Quran" after the South Asian Islamic nation's prime minister issued a call for anti-Sweden protests over last week's burning of Islamic holy book 'Quran' in Stockholm. Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Thousands of Muslims in Pakistan rallied on Friday to protest last week’s burning of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, in Stockholm following a call by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to “send a strong message to Sweden.”

The biggest anti-Sweden rallies were held in the eastern city of Lahore and Karachi, the largest city in the South Asian Islamic country, where thousands of people gathered on main roads before dispersing peacefully.

In the capital, Islamabad, lawyers holding copies of the Quran protested in front of the Supreme Court, while worshippers outside mosques held small rallies, demanding the severing of diplomatic ties with Sweden.

A group of minority Christians in the northwest also held a rally to denounce the incident.

Supporters of Pakistan’s main opposition party Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf and radical Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan party also protested in all of the country’s major cities, including Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, and Quetta.

Anger has grown in Muslim countries since last Wednesday when a man, identified in Swedish media as an Iraqi Christian immigrant, burned a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm on the festival of Eid al-Adha. Muslim leaders in Sweden have also denounced the incident.

In a televised speech to lawmakers in Pakistan’s parliament the previous day, Sharif asked why Swedish police allowed the burning of the Quran.

On Friday, he urged his supporters “to send a strong message to Sweden” by taking to the streets.

“When it comes to the Quran, the nation is one,” Sharif wrote on Twitter. “We will all protest nationwide today under the title of Sanctity of Quran Day and after Friday prayers.”

A similar call for protests was issued by Imran Khan, the former premier who was replaced by Sharif in April 2022 after his ouster through a motion of no-confidence in the parliament.

However, the followers of Khan, Sharif, and other parties held separate rallies across the nation.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also tweeted on Friday amid the nationwide protests, saying the “desecration of the Quran in Sweden is another example of the rising Islamophobic mindset that seeks to dehumanise and denigrate our faith.”

He wrote that the incident was a blatant provocation attempting to “inflame sentiments and undermine Islam as a religion of peace, tolerance, and acceptance.”

Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan will address the issue at the United Nations on July 11.

Those holding anti-Sweden protests include a radical party, Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan (TLP), which has previously held violent rallies to condemn the desecration of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

TTP wants the boycott of all products from Sweden and the cutting of diplomatic ties until the man responsible for the burning of the Quran is punished. TLP gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.