ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed Wednesday that Turkey won’t allow Sweden to join the NATO military alliance as long as the Scandinavian country permits protests desecrating Islam’s holy book to take place.
Turkey, which has been holding off approving Sweden and Finland’s membership in the Western military alliance, has been infuriated by a series of demonstrations in Stockholm by activists who have burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy and hanged an effigy of Erdogan. It has indefinitely postponed a key meeting in Brussels that would have discussed the two Nordic countries’ entry into NATO.
“Sweden, don’t even bother! 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,” Erdogan said in a speech to his ruling party’s legislators.
Swedish government officials have distanced themselves from the protests, including by a far-right anti-Islam activist who burned copies of the Quran in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark, while also stressing that the demonstrations are protected by freedom of speech.
On Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced the activists who carried out 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,” Kristersson told reporters in Stockholm, without naming any countries.
Sweden and neighboring Finland abandoned decades of nonalignment and applied to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All NATO members except Turkey and Hungary have ratified their accession, but unanimity is required.
Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland becoming NATO member than with its neighbor Sweden. He stressed, however, that it was up to the military alliance to decide whether to accept one country only or the Nordic duo together — something that both countries are committed to.
Should NATO decide to deal with the membership processes of the Nordic neighbors separately, “(Turkey) will then of course reconsider (ratifying) Finland’s membership separately and more favorably, I can say,” Cavusoglu said during a joint news conference with his Estonian colleague in Tallinn. He didn’t give a time frame.
Erdogan also repeated that Turkey’s view on Finland’s membership was “positive.”
“But it is not positive about Sweden, that should be known,” Erdogan said.
Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström told Swedish news agency TT that his country was complying with an agreement reached by Turkey, Sweden and Finland last year, but said that “religion is not part of the agreement.”
“Having said that, I fully understand that people take offense to the burning of holy writings and perceive it as deeply hurtful,” he said.
“What is needed now is for the situation to cool down on all sides,” Billström said, adding that 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 Erdogan’s comments to an upcoming general election in Turkey.
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,” Billström said.