Ankara: Protesters chant slogans against Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan during a demonstration outside Sweden’s embassy on Saturday.—AFP

Turkiye on Saturday cancelled a visit by the Swedish defence minister over a demonstration by an anti-Islamic extremist in Stockholm, sparking a fresh crisis over Ankara’s blocking of Sweden’s bid to join the Nato military alliance.

Turkish officials denounced the permission granted to Rasmus Paludan, a right-wing Swedish-Danish politician, to stage a protest in front of its embassy in the Swedish capital.

After a diatribe of almost an hour in which he attacked Islam and immigration in Sweden, Paludan set fire to the Holy Quran with a lighter. “If you don’t think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else,” he told the crowd.

A day after summoning the Swedish ambassador over Paludan’s latest demo, Ankara said it had called off the visit by Defence Minister Pal Jonson for Jan 27, aimed at overcoming Turkiye’s objections to Sweden’s Nato bid. The meeting “has lost its significance and meaning, so we cancelled,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.

Joint decision

Jonson said the decision to postpone the visit was made jointly with Akar on Friday at the US military base in Ramstein, Germany, where Ukraine’s allies were meeting to discuss further weapon supplies for Kyiv.

“Our relations with Turkiye are very important to Sweden, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defence issues at a later date,” Jonson tweeted. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom also blasted Paludan’s protest.

“Islamophobic provocations are appalling,” he said. “Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression, but it does not imply that the Swedish government, or myself, support the opinions expressed.” Paludan’s protest was held under heavy police protection with around 100 people — including a large number of reporters — gathered near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

Turkish 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.

A small pro-Turkey demonstration also took place, on the other side of the embassy, while a pro-Kurdish rally called by the Rojava Committee of Sweden and others also took place in Stockholm, drawing several hundred people.

Swedish police gave their authorisation for the anti-Islam demo after determining it fell under the country’s liberal freedom of speech laws. But Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said allowing the protest was “encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia”.

“The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism,” he tweeted on Saturday. Devlet Bahceli, head of the nationalist MHP party that is the junior partner in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing coalition, vowed that “Sweden’s Nato membership will not be approved by the parliament”.

Reaction in Muslim world

Türkiye, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia lead the Muslim world’s outrage after Sweden allows notorious habitual offender Rasmus Paludan to burn a copy of the Holy Quran under the “freedom of expression” guise.

The Muslim world has erupted in anger and alarm after Sweden allowed a far-right racist politician Rasmus Paludan to burn a copy of the Muslim Holy book Quran in front of the Turkish embassy building in Stockholm.

Here are some of the first reactions:

Türkiye

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile attack on our holy book, the Quran, in Sweden today (21 January), despite our repeated warnings earlier,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said.

Calling the act “an outright hate crime,” the ministry said: “Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable.”

“This despicable act is yet another example of the alarming level that Islamophobia and, racist and discriminatory movements have reached in Europe.”

Pakistan

“This senseless and provocative Islamophobic act hurts the religious sensitivities of over 1.5 billion Muslims around the world,” said a statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry.

Such actions are “not covered under any legitimate expression of the right to freedom of expression or opinion, which carries responsibilities under international human rights law, such as the obligation not to carry out hate speech and incite people to violence.”

“Pakistan’s concerns are being conveyed to the authorities in Sweden. We urge them to be mindful of the sentiments of the people of Pakistan and the Muslims worldwide and take steps to prevent Islamophobic acts,” the statement added.

Kuwait

The incident “hurts Muslims’ sentiments across the world and marks serious provocation,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Salem Abdullah Al Jaber Al Sabah said in statements cited by the state news agency KUNA.

He called on the international community “to shoulder responsibility by stopping such unacceptable acts and denouncing all forms of hatred and extremism and brining the perpetrators to accountability.”

Saudi Arabia

“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.

UAE

The United Arab Emirates said it was against “all practices aimed at destabilising security and stability in contravention of human and moral values and principles”.

Qatar

Qatar condemned the Swedish authorities’ permission to burn the Holy Quran and call on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities to reject hatred and violence.

Iran

Calling it an attempt to stoke hatred and violence against Muslims, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said some European countries under the false pretext of advocating freedom of speech “allow extremist and radical elements to spread hatred against Islamic sanctities and values”.

Kanaani said despite the strong emphasis on human rights in Islam, Europeans continue to “institutionalise anti-Islamism and Islamophobia” in their societies.

He added that the desecration of the Quran is a “clear example of spreading hatred and fueling violence against Muslims”, which has “nothing to do with freedom of speech and thought”.

Jordan

Jordan “condemned the burning of a copy of the Holy Quran in the Swedish capital Stockholm, stressing the Kingdom’s rejection of this act that fuels hatred.”

It emphasised the necessity to spread the culture of peace and acceptance of the other and “condemning extremism is a collective responsibility.”

Egypt

Egypt expressed its strong condemnation of the disgraceful act that provokes the feelings of hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.

Egypt warned of the dangers of the spread of such acts that offend religions and fuel hate speech and violence, calling for upholding the values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence and preventing offense to all religions and their sanctities through such extremist practices that contradict the values of respect for religion.

Organization of Islamic Cooperation

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation bloc said the “provocative action… targets Muslims, insults their sacred values, and serves as further example of the alarming level reached by Islamophobia” and asked Sweden to punish those behind a “hate crime”.

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