STOCKHOLM, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Protests in Stockholm against Turkey and Sweden’s NATO membership on Saturday included the burning of copies of the Koran, as tensions with Turkey flared as the Nordic country needed Ankara’s backing to enter intensified into military alliances.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the despicable attack on our holy book…It is completely unacceptable to allow such anti-Islamic acts against Muslims and insult our sacred values under the guise of freedom of expression,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said.
Its statement came after an anti-immigration politician from the far-right fringe burned a copy of the Koran near the Turkish embassy. Turkey’s foreign ministry urged Sweden to take necessary action against the perpetrators and invited all countries to take concrete measures to combat Islamophobia.
Another protest in support of the Kurds and against Sweden’s NATO membership was also held in the city. A group of pro-Turkish demonstrators also held a rally outside the embassy. All three activities were licensed by the police.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Bilstrom said the Islamophobic provocation was appalling.
“Sweden enjoys broad freedom of expression, but this does not mean that the Swedish government or myself support the views expressed,” Bilstrom said on Twitter.
The Koran was burned by Rasmus Paludan, the hardline leader of the far-right Danish party. Paludan, who also has Swedish citizenship, has held demonstrations in the past and burned the Koran.
Paludan could not immediately be reached by email for comment. In his permit from the police, it said his protest was against Islam and an alleged attempt by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to influence freedom of expression in Sweden.
Several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, have condemned the burning of the Koran. “Saudi Arabia calls for the spread of the values of dialogue, tolerance and coexistence, rejecting hatred and extremism,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.
Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but all 30 members must approve their applications. Turkey says Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against what it sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish militants and groups it blames for the failed 2016 coup.
A speaker stands in front of a large red banner that reads “We are all the PKK”, referring to the PKK outlawed in Turkey, Sweden and the US, during a demonstration protesting Sweden’s NATO membership and expressing support for the Kurds In other countries, and addressed hundreds of pro-Kurdish and leftist supporters.
“We will continue to oppose Sweden’s NATO application,” Thomas Paterson, a spokesman for the anti-NATO coalition and one of the demonstration’s organizers, told Reuters.
Police said conditions at all three demonstrations were calm.
Defense minister’s visit canceled
Earlier on Saturday, Turkey said it had canceled a planned visit by the Swedish defense minister to Ankara due to a lack of measures to limit the protests.
“At this point, the January 27 visit of Swedish Defense Minister Paar Jonsson to Turkey became meaningless. So we canceled the visit,” Defense Minister Hulus Akar said.
Jonsson said separately that he and Akar met Friday during a gathering of Western allies in Germany and decided to postpone the planned meeting.
Akar said he had discussed with Erdogan the lack of measures to limit Sweden’s protests against Turkey and relayed Ankara’s response to Jonsson during a Ukrainian defense liaison group meeting.
“Inaction or reaction to these (protests) is unacceptable. Necessary things need to be done, measures should be taken,” Akar said, according to a statement from the Turkish Ministry of Defense.
Turkey’s foreign ministry had summoned the Swedish ambassador on Friday over the planned protest.
Finland and Sweden signed a tripartite agreement with Turkey in 2022 aimed at overcoming Ankara’s objections to its NATO membership. Sweden said it had fulfilled part of the memorandum, but Turkey demanded more, including the extradition of 130 people it believed to be terrorists.
(This story has been corrected to remove the misreference to Morocco in the ninth paragraph)
Reporting by Omer Berberoglu in Istanbul and Niklas Pollard and Simon Johnson in Stockholm Additional reporting by Moaz Abd-Alaziz in Cairo Editing by Ezgi Erkoyun and Niklas Pollard Toby Chopra and Frances Kerry
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