Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday that a planned visit by his Swedish counterpart to Ankara has been canceled after Swedish authorities granted permission for protests in Stockholm.
Protests in Stockholm on Saturday against Turkey and Sweden’s bid to join NATO, including the burning of a copy of the Quran, sharply heightened tensions with Turkey at a time when the Nordic country needs Ankara’s backing to gain entry to the military alliance.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile attack on our holy book … Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
Its statement was issued after an anti-immigrant politician from the far-right fringe burned a copy of the Quran near the Turkish Embassy. The Turkish ministry urged Sweden to take necessary actions against the perpetrators and invited all countries to take concrete steps against Islamophobia.
A separate protest took place in the city supporting Kurds and against Sweden’s bid to join NATO. A group of pro-Turkish demonstrators also held a rally outside the embassy. All three events had police permits.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said that Islamophobic provocations were appalling.
“Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression, but it does not imply that the Swedish Government, or myself, support the opinions expressed,” Billstrom said on Twitter.
The Quran-burning was carried out by Rasmus Paludan, leader of Danish far-right political party Hard Line. Paludan, who also has Swedish citizenship, has held a number of demonstrations in the past where he has burned the Quran.
Paludan could not immediately be reached by email for a comment. In the permit he obtained from police, it says his protest was held against Islam and what it called Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to influence freedom of expression in Sweden.
Several Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait denounced the Koran-burning. “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.
Sweden and Finland applied last year to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but all 30 member states must approve their bids. Turkey has said Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against what it sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish militants and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt.
At the demonstration to protest Sweden’s NATO bid and to show support for Kurds, speakers stood in front of a large red banner reading “We are all PKK”, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party that is outlawed in Turkey, Sweden, and the United States among other countries, and addressed several hundred pro-Kurdish and left-wing supporters.
“We will continue our opposition to the Swedish NATO application,” Thomas Pettersson, spokesperson for Alliance Against NATO and one of organizers of the demonstration, told Reuters.
Police said the situation was calm at all three demonstrations.
Earlier on Saturday, Turkey said that due to lack of measures to restrict protests, it had canceled a planned visit to Ankara by the Swedish defence minister.
“At this point, the visit of Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson to Turkey on January 27 has become meaningless. So we canceled the visit,” Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.