Sweden can't join Nato if Quran burning is condoned, says Turkey's Erdogan

Turkish president confirmed he would support Finland's bid to join the Nato military alliance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party's legislators in Ankara on February 1. AFP
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As long as Sweden allows protests desecrating Islam’s holy book to take place, Turkey will not allow the country to join the Nato military alliance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed on Wednesday.

Turkey has been refusing to back Nato accession plans for Sweden and Finland since the countries requested to join after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Since opening accession talks, demonstrations in Stockholm have further damaged Sweden's relationship with Turkey.

In one case an Islamophobic activist burnt the Quran outside the Turkish embassy, while in an unconnected protest an effigy of Mr 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’ entry to Nato.

“Sweden, don’t even bother," Mr Erdogan said in a speech to his ruling AKP party's legilators.

"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."

Swedish government officials have distanced themselves from the protests, including by a far-right anti-Islam activist who burnt copies of the Quran in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark.

But they have also stressed that the demonstrations are protected by freedom of speech.

On Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced the activists at 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,” Mr Kristersson said in Stockholm, without naming countries.

A look at the Nato military alliance - in pictures

All Nato members except Turkey and Hungary have ratified Sweden and Finland's accession, but unanimity is required.

Mr Erdogan said in a TV interview on Wednesday that Sweden must prevent protests in which the Quran is burnt.

“Hate crimes against Muslims under the guise of freedom of expression are unacceptable," he told state broadcaster TRT.

"We expect that the beliefs of all groups are respected and sincere steps are taken in the fight against Islamophobia."

In Finland, which has had no anti-Turkish or Islamophobic demonstrations, breaching religious peace is punishable by law, and desecrating a book held sacred by a religious community would probably fit that.

As a result, police would not allow a protest that involved burning the Quran.

There is no similar legislation in other Nordic countries, Finnish public broadcaster YLE said.

It reported on Tuesday that a group of anti-Nato demonstrators had planned to burn the Quran in Helsinki last week but changed their minds after police found out about their plan on social media and intervened.

Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara had fewer problems with Finland becoming Nato member than Sweden.

But Mr Cavusoglu said it was up to the military alliance to decide whether to accept one country only or the Nordic duo together, which both countries are committed to.

Should Nato decide to deal with the membership processes separately, “(Turkey) will then of course reconsider Finland’s membership separately and more favorably, I can say,” he said, alongside Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu in Tallinn. He did not give a timeframe.

Mr Erdogan also repeated that Turkey’s view on Finland’s membership was “positive.”

Finland and Sweden submit applications for Nato membership - video

Finland and Sweden submit applications for Nato membership

Finland and Sweden submit applications for Nato membership

Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told news agency TT that his country was complying with an agreement reached by Turkey, Sweden and Finland last year, but “religion is not part of the agreement".

“Having said that, I fully understand that people take offence to the burning of holy writings and perceive it as deeply hurtful,” Mr Billstrom said.

“What is needed now is for the situation to cool down on all sides."

He said 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 Mr Erdogan’s comments to Turkish domestic politics.

Mr 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,” Mr Billström said.

Updated: February 01, 2023, 10:32 PM