Thursday February 2, 2023
By SUZAN FRASER and JARI TANNER
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed Wednesday that Turkey won’t allow Sweden to join the NATO military alliance as long as the Scandinavian country permits protests desecrating Islam’s holy book to take place.
Turkey, which had already been holding off approving Sweden and Finland’s membership in the Western military alliance, has been infuriated by a series of separate demonstrations in Stockholm. In one case a solitary anti-Islam activist burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, while in an unconnected protest an effigy of Erdogan was hanged. Even before that, Ankara had been pressing Sweden and Finland to crack down on exiled members of Kurdish and other groups it sees as terrorists, and to allow arms sales to Turkey.
Turkey has indefinitely postponed a key meeting in Brussels that would have discussed the two Nordic countries’ NATO entry.
“Sweden, don’t even bother! As long as you allow my holy book, the Quran, to be burned and torn, and you do so together with your security forces, we will not say ‘yes’ to your entry into NATO,” Erdogan said in a speech to his ruling party’s legislators.
Swedish government officials have distanced themselves from the protests, including by a far-right anti-Islam activist who burned copies of the Quran in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark, while also stressing that the demonstrations are protected by freedom of speech.
On Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced the activists who carried out the demonstrations as “useful idiots” for foreign powers who want to inflict harm on the Scandinavian country as it seeks to join NATO.
“We have seen how foreign actors, even state actors, have used these manifestations to inflame the situation in a way that is directly harmful to Swedish security,” Kristersson told reporters in Stockholm, without naming any countries.
Sweden and neighboring Finland abandoned decades of nonalignment and applied to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All NATO members except Turkey and Hungary have ratified their accession, but unanimity is required.
In a television interview Wednesday, Erdogan suggested that Sweden needs to prevent Quran burning protests.
“Hate crimes against Muslims under the guise of freedom of expression are unacceptable. We expect that the beliefs of all groups are respected and sincere steps are taken in the fight against Islamophobia,” he told state broadcaster TRT.
In Finland, which has seen no anti-Turkish or anti-Islam demonstrations, violating religious peace is punishable by law, and desecrating a book held sacred by a religious community would likely violate that law. As a result, police wouldn’t allow a protest that involved burning the Quran.
There is no similar legislation in other Nordic countries, Finnish public broadcaster YLE said.
YLE reported Tuesday that a group of anti-NATO demonstrators had planned to burn the Quran in Helsinki last week but changed their minds after police got wind of their plan on social media and intervened.
Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland becoming NATO member than with its neighbor Sweden. He stressed, however, that it was up to the military alliance to decide whether to accept one country only or the Nordic duo together — something that both countries are committed to.
Should NATO decide to deal with the membership processes of the Nordic neighbors separately, “(Turkey) will then of course reconsider (ratifying) Finland’s membership separately and more favorably, I can say,” Cavusoglu said during a joint news conference with his Estonian colleague in Tallinn. He didn’t give a time frame.
Erdogan also repeated that Turkey’s view on Finland’s membership was “positive.”
Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström told Swedish news agency TT that his country was complying with an agreement reached by Turkey, Sweden and Finland last year, but said that “religion is not part of the agreement.”
“Having said that, I fully understand that people take offense to the burning of holy writings and perceive it as deeply hurtful,” he said.
“What is needed now is for the situation to cool down on all sides,” Billström said, adding that talks with Turkey on the implementation of the agreement were continuing. With the joint memorandum signed last year, Sweden and Finland agreed to address Turkey’s security concerns.
The minister also tied Erdogan’s comments to Turkish domestic politics.
Erdogan, who faces a tough presidential election in May amid an economic downturn and high inflation, is expected use his strong-arming of Sweden to rally nationalist support.
“Right now there is an election campaign going on in Turkey and in election campaigns many things are said,” Billström said.
Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki. Jan M. Olsen contributed to this report from Copenhagen, Denmark.