ISTANBUL - Turkey on Saturday called off a visit by Sweden’s defence minister over a planned demonstration by a right-wing extremist in Stockholm, sparking a fresh crisis over Nato talks between the two countries.
Turkey has been angered by permission obtained by Mr Rasmus Paludan, a Swedish-Danish politician whose anti-Islamist actions sparked riots across Sweden last year, to stage a protest in front of its embassy in the Swedish capital.
A day after summoning the Swedish ambassador over the issue, Ankara said it was cancelling a visit by Sweden’s defence chief that was aimed at overcoming Turkey’s objections to Sweden’s bid to join the Nato military alliance.
“At this point, Swedish Defence Minister Pal Jonson’s visit to Turkey on Jan 27 has lost its significance and meaning, so we cancelled the visit,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.
Mr Jonson also confirmed the decision to postpone the visit, which he said was made together with Mr Akar at the US military base in Ramstein, Germany, on Friday.
“Our relations with Turkey are very important to Sweden, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defence issues at a later date,” he tweeted.
Mr Paludan has expressed his intention to “burn the Quran”, Islam’s holy book, during his protest on Saturday.
In April last year, Mr Paludan’s announcement of a Quran burning “tour” for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sparked riots across Sweden.
The protest went ahead as planned later on Saturday under a heavy police presence, according to an AFP journalist.
Around 100 people – including a large number of journalists, gathered near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.
Mr Paludan set fire to the holy book with a lighter following a long diatribe of almost an hour in which he attacked Islam and immigration in Sweden.
“If you don’t think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else,” he said.
A small pro-Turkish demonstration also took place on the other side of the embassy.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu vented fury at Swedish authorities’ failure to ban the protest.
“It’s a racist action, it’s not about freedom of expression,” he said.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on Saturday said allowing the protest despite Ankara’s repeated warnings was “encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia”.
“The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism,” he tweeted.
The right-wing ally of the government was more furious.
“Sweden’s Nato membership will not be approved by the parliament,” Mr Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP party, said.
Turkey had on Friday summoned Sweden’s ambassador to “condemn this provocative action which is clearly a hate crime – in strongest terms,” a diplomatic source said.
Foreign ministry officials told the ambassador that Sweden’s permission for the protest in the pretext of defending democratic values was “unacceptable”, the source added.
This is the second time in more than a week that Sweden’s ambassador to Turkey was summoned.
Last week, he was called to answer for a video posted by a Kurdish group in Stockholm that depicted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swinging by his legs from a rope.
A tweet by the group, Rojava Committee of Sweden, compared Mr Erdogan to Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who was hung upside down after his execution in the closing days of World War II.
A pro-Kurdish rally called by the Rojava Committee of Sweden among others also took place on Saturday, drawing several hundred people.
Sweden, along with neighbouring Finland, needs Turkey’s consent to join Nato.
Both countries dropped decades of military non-alignment last year when they applied to join the Western defence alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ankara says any progress depends on Swedish steps to extradite people it accuses of terrorism or of having played a part in the 2016 coup attempt against Mr Erdogan.
Turkey argues that Sweden has not done enough to crack down on Kurdish groups that Ankara views as “terrorist.” AFP