Turkey has denounced Sweden after protests outside its embassy in Stockholm, including the burning of a Koran by far-right supporters and a separate demonstration by Kurdish activists.
Ankara announced on Saturday that it was canceling a visit by Sweden’s defense minister aimed at overcoming Turkey’s objections to joining NATO. Sweden needs Turkey’s backing to enter the military alliance as fears in Europe grow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The burning of the Koran was carried out by Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line. In April last year, Paludan’s announcement of a Koran burning “tour” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sparked riots across Sweden.
Surrounded by police, Paludan set fire to the holy book with a lighter following a nearly hour-long rant, in which he attacked Islam and immigration to Sweden. Around 100 people gathered nearby for a peaceful counter-protest.
“If you think there shouldn’t be free speech, you have to live somewhere else,” he said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately reacted in a statement.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the despicable attack on our holy book…Allowing this anti-Islamic act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is totally unacceptable. “, said the ministry.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed his fury at the Swedish authorities’ failure to ban the protest. “It’s a racist action, it’s not a matter of freedom of expression,” he said.
Several Arab countries – including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait – have also denounced the burning of the Koran.
“Saudi Arabia calls for spreading the values of dialogue, tolerance and coexistence, and rejects hatred and extremism,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.
A small group gathered outside the Swedish Embassy in Ankara to protest the burning of the Koran. A demonstration was also due to take place in Istanbul on Saturday evening.
‘Clear hate crime’
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom called the Islamophobic provocations “appalling”.
“Sweden has a great deal of freedom of expression, but that does not imply that the Swedish government, or myself, supports the opinions expressed,” Billstrom said on Twitter.
A separate demonstration was held in the city in support of the Kurds and against Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. A group of pro-Turkish protesters also staged a rally outside the embassy. All three events had police permits.
Protesters waved the flags of various Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the European Union and the United States, but its symbols are not banned in Sweden.
Earlier, Turkey was angered by Sweden’s green light for the protest outside its embassy amid ongoing tensions following Ankara’s objections to Sweden’s bid to join the NATO military alliance .
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has denounced the Swedish government for failing to take action against “disgusting” anti-Turkish protests on its soil. Akar said the planned January 27 visit by his Swedish counterpart Pål Jonson no longer had “significance or interest”.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin condemned the protest as an “obvious hate crime”.
“Allowing this action despite all our warnings encourages hate crimes and Islamophobia,” he tweeted. “The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism.”
Billström told the TT news agency on Friday that Sweden respects freedom of expression.
“Extremists and madmen”
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, told Al Jazeera that progress was still being made on the issue of Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership despite tensions.
“There are extremists and crackpots trying to sabotage the whole process. They should not be given [importance] whether the authorities in Ankara are really interested in reaching an agreement,” Bildt said.
Turkey summoned Sweden’s ambassador on Friday to condemn the protests, saying rallies by pro-Kurdish groups linked to the PKK would violate the joint memorandum signed between Turkey, Sweden and Finland that prevented a Turkish veto to the accession of the Nordic countries to NATO. in June.
Sweden and neighboring Finland abandoned decades of military non-alignment last year when they applied to join the Western defense alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey has so far refused to endorse their offers, which must be approved by all member states, and has linked its vote in favor of Swedish measures to extradite people it accuses of terrorism or of having played a role in the 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip. Erdoğan.
Turkey says Sweden is not doing enough to crack down on Kurdish groups that Ankara considers “terrorists”.
Sweden’s ambassador to Turkey was summoned last week after a video released by a Kurdish group in Stockholm showed an effigy of Erdogan swinging his legs from a rope.