It was sad to learn about the anti-Islamic public gathering and attempted burning of the Holy Quran at a central city square in the southern Norwegian city of Kristiasand last week. The police interfered immediately and stopped the desecration of the holy book. A few members of a small extremist group named SIAN, ‘Stop islamiseringen av Norge’ (Stop the Islamization of Norway), carried out the crime. In Norway such crimes carry fines or prison sentences of up to three years. The country’s Commissioner of Police, Benedicte Bjørnland, had just in advance of the incident issued a letter to all police chiefs to remind them of taking action against such possible cases, inter alia, because they could lead to counter-actions and wider unrest in the country. In later newspaper articles, she has discussed how to reason about and handle such difficult cases, when they occur, in the best possible ways. There is still a public debate going on.

It is allowed to hold demonstrations and rallies, covered under the freedom of speech and assembly rights, but the police must be informed in advance, as they were in the current case. The police cannot deny such manifestations, but they can give advice and instructions for how they should be held. In this case, the police had been informed in advance and they had given instructions against setting fire to the Holy Quran. When that was attempted, the police took immediate action. Muslims (and maybe others, too) who were on the spot attacked the perpetrators, and the police had to protect them as well as those watching, and make necessary arrests.

Norway does not have a blasphemy paragraph in its Penal Code any longer, but there is an anti-hate paragraph, §185 in the Penal Code, which forbids discriminatory any hateful expressions towards others; listed explicitly are such expressions against people of different skin colour or ethnic origin; religion or belief; homosexuals; or persons with disabilities. It is against the law to desecrate any religious symbol.

As a Norwegian, and just as a human being, I would like to extend my deepest apologies to all Muslims in Norway and the world. I would also apologise to believers in other faiths, and to others who may not be active religiously, but want the sacred to be respected. We must all have respect for other religions and what is sacred and kept in high regard by others.

Nowhere in the world is desecration of a grave allowed; it is vulgar and disrespectful. In Norway, it is an offense that the police will deal with, and §195 in the Penal Code carries a maximum sentence of two years, or fines. Human beings are different from other creations in the animal kingdom in numerous ways; one such difference is that human beings bury their dead. There is something sacred not only to the human body, and the dead body, but also to a grave, which is a symbol of God’s creation and the loved one who has passed on.

We get still and reflective when we go to sacred places, such as war memorials, indeed holocaust and other special monuments. We remember the grave of the unknown soldiers, of those who died in natural disasters, people who have drowned at sea and could not be honoured by a physical grave, and more. Norwegians know this well as we have fostered so many sailors and fishermen and we live in a harsh and unpredictable climate. Countries with recent freedom wars and other violent conflicts expect that we all show respect for the memory of those whose lives were taken, whether they have a physical grave or just a virtual grave to honour them by.

We must also show respect and honour those who fight for causes they believe deeply in, those who struggle for freedom and rights, for their land and the right to self-determination, indeed the Kashmiri people and the Palestinian people. In history, the stronger human beings have often done wrong to the weaker. The way the indigenous Americans were treated when the continents were populated a few hundred years ago, is nothing to be proud of; the land, places and values that the indigenous people held high and sacred, were often ignored, even ridiculed and termed superstition.

In February this year, Norwegians were shocked as an elderly woman was randomly attacked and killed by a madman with an axe, a drug addict who didn’t know what he was doing, when she paid a visit to her family grave at Haugesund city’s ‘Vår Frelsers Gravlund’ (Cemetery of Our Saviour) in south-west Norway. Bjørg Marie Skeisvoll Hereid (67) had come back to her hometown from the capital when the tragedy happened. Two weeks ago, the sentence was announced, and the perpetrator was sentenced to compulsory psychiatric ward; the prosecutor, defence council and perpetrator himself, the 49-year old drug addict and psychiatric patient, all agreed to the sentence. We should pray for the victim and her family, but we should also pray for the perpetrator; he acted out of his senses. People who know the perpetrator say that he was usually a reasonable man but that the curse of drugs and ill-health made him carry out an unspeakable crime; he will have to live with the knowledge of what he did the rest of his life.

I draw attention to this crime at a sacred place, a cemetery, and to other crimes against indigenous people, and to many other crimes and injustices against poor and powerless people, including violence against women and other gender based violence, which is market for 16 days every year from 25 November. In broader senses, there are similarities to the recent crime in Kristiansand, Norway. Deliberate actions to what is holy must never be accepted – God is holy and the human beings are holy; the teachings and holy books must be respected; what I and you hold sacred must be respected by everybody, everywhere, at every time. To incite to unrest and violence, and to utter discriminatory words, is never acceptable. We must learn to do the opposite better, speak up for the downtrodden and those who seek recognition, justice and a rightful place in their land and community.

We live in a time when religions meet in the same space more than before; believers of different faiths live side by side in the same town and city. They have different dogma, rituals, traditions and symbols. We must respect them all; we must also try to learn about what others’ hold sacred and we must try to appreciate why they do so. We may hold other things sacred ourselves, but that doesn’t keep us from learning about what others keep sacred and how others worship God-Allah and ask for his mercy.

The sad incident in Kristiansand, Norway, last week, was an ignorant and vulgar act. Those people who did it must find other ways of debating. Their actions were wrong. Yet, instead of using violence to counteract, we should look at them as people walking in the wilderness, people who need our help, advice and prayers. That is the most powerful action we can offer, because it has God’s blessing.