STOCKHOLM (AP) — Turkey on Saturday canceled a planned visit by Sweden’s defense minister in response to anti-Turkish protests that increased tension between the two countries as Sweden seeks Turkey’s approval to join NATO.
A far-right activist from Denmark received permission from police to stage a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm where he burned the Quran, Islam’s holy book. A separate pro-Kurdish demonstration was held later Saturday in the Swedish capital.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the scheduled Jan. 27 visit by his Swedish counterpart Pål Jonson no longer held “any importance or point,” because Sweden continued to allow “disgusting” demonstrations against Turkey.
Jonson tweeted that he had met Akar on Friday in Ramstein, Germany, where they “agreed to postpone” the meeting in Ankara.
“Relations with Turkey are very important for Sweden and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defense issues at a later date,” he wrote.
The bid by historically nonaligned Sweden and Finland to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been held up by Ankara, which has accused Sweden in particular of being soft on Kurdish militants and other groups that Turkey considers security threats.
The Swedish government’s efforts to improve relations with Turkey have been complicated by demonstrations by pro-Kurdish activists, which have infuriated Turkey’s government. On Saturday, anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan added to the tensions by staging a Quran-burning protest outside the Turkish Embassy.
Surrounded by police, Paludan carried out his protest while making disparaging remarks about immigrants and Islam. About 100 people gathered nearby for a peaceful counterdemonstration.
In a separate protest later Saturday, a few hundred pro-Kurdish and anti-NATO activists marched through downtown Stockholm. Demonstrators waved 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 aren’t banned in Sweden.
The protesters also held up flags with the face of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan and walked over a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Swedish officials have stressed that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Swedish Constitution and gives people extensive rights to express their views publicly, though incitement to violence or hate speech isn’t allowed. Demonstrators must apply to police for a permit for a public gathering. Police can deny such permits only on exceptional grounds, such as risks to public safety.
Turkish officials condemned the Quran-burning protest and Swedish authorities for allowing it.
“Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of ‘freedom of expression’ is completely unacceptable. This is an outright hate crime,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. In another statement, following the pro-Kurdish protest, Ankara said that Sweden was in “clear violation” of the joint memorandum signed between Turkey, Sweden and Finland in June by not preventing “terror organization propaganda.”
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, called the Quran-burning a hateful crime against humanity, while Erdogan’s nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli, said parliament wouldn’t ratify Sweden’s NATO membership “under these conditions.”
“Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression, but it does not imply that the Swedish Government, or myself, support the opinions expressed,” Foreign Minister Tobias Billström tweeted.
About 100 people gathered outside the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul on Saturday night, where demonstrators burned a Swedish flag and shouted slogans like “hands raised against the Quran will be broken.” A small group also gathered outside the Swedish Embassy in Ankara.
Earlier in January, an effigy of Erdogan was hung from a lamppost during a protest by Kurds. Turkey denounced a decision by a Swedish prosecutor not to investigate and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson called the protest an act of “sabotage” against Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Turkey summoned the Swedish ambassador earlier this week and canceled a visit by the speaker of the Swedish parliament in reaction to the incident.
All NATO members need to ratify in their parliaments the accession requests by Sweden and Finland, which were made after Russia’s war on Ukraine prompted the Nordic countries to drop their longstanding policies of military nonalignment. While Turkey says it has no objection to NATO’s growth, it won’t ratify the bids until its demands, which include extraditions of alleged terror suspects, are met.
Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.