Turkey scorches Koran-burning in Stockholm

Leader of the far-right Danish political party Stram Kurs, Rasmus Paludan, about to burn a copy of the Koran, while being watched by police officers, as he protests outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, 21 January 2023. Photo: EPA/Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“In strongest possible terms” is how Ankara condemned Koran-burning and protests that broke out in Stockholm on Saturday against Turkey and Sweden's bid to join NATO.

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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.

The statement was issued in response to the burning of a copy of the Koran near the Turkish Embassy by Rasmus Paludan – a far-right, anti-immigrant Danish-Sweidsh politician. The Turkish ministry called Sweden to task and demanded that the perpetrators be dealt with accordingly. The ministry also invited all countries to take concrete steps against Islamophobia.

A separate pro-Kurdish demonstration marched through the capital to protest Sweden's bid to join NATO. Meanwhile, a pro-Turkish counter-protest rallied outside the embassy. All three events had obtained the necessary police permits.

Saying that Islamophobic provocations were appalling, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom tweeted that although “Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression… it does not imply that the Swedish Government, or [himself], support the opinions expressed."

But this was by far not the first Koran-burning organised and perpetrated by Paludan – a Swedish citizen and the leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line.

As reported by Reuters, Paludan obtained a permit from the police that read his protest was held against Islam and what it called Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan's attempt to influence freedom of expression in Sweden.

Condemnations of the protest also came from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait.

“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.

The public burning of the Koran has brought Sweden’s NATO ambitions to a precarious precipice at a time when the Nordic country indispensably seeks Ankara's backing to gain entry to the military alliance.

Turkey’s issue with Kurds in Sweden

Sweden, but also Finland, decided on applying for NATO membership last year, prompted by Moscow’s voracious expansionary politics that manifested in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Joining the NATO family, however, is contingent on the approval of all 30 member states and given Sweden being a migration destination for Kurds, Turkey feels it is in its interest to press Stockholm to first take a clearer stance against what it sees as terrorists and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt.

At the protest against Sweden's NATO ambitions and to show backing for Kurds, speakers gathered 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 the demonstration organisers, told Reuters.

Police said the situation was calm at all three demonstrations.

Swedish Defence Minister Pål Jonson’s planned visit to Ankara was scrapped by Turkey. Ankara justified its move with what it saw as a lack of measures to restrict protests.

Jonson said separately that he and Akar had met on Friday during a gathering of Western allies in Germany and had decided to postpone the planned meeting.