Sweden could not expect Turkey’s support for its Nato membership, the Turkish president has warned, days after a copy of the Qur’an was burned in a Stockholm protest.
Protests near the Turkish embassy in Sweden’s capital on Saturday have heightened tensions with Turkey, whose backing Sweden needs to gain entry to the military alliance.
The protest had been given prior approval by Swedish authorities, although the burning of the book itself had not.
“Those who allow such blasphemy in front of our embassy can no longer expect our support for their Nato membership,” Erdoğan said in his first official response after a cabinet meeting.
“If you love members of terrorist organisations and enemies of Islam so much and protect them, then we advise you to seek their support for your countries’ security,” he added.
Saturday’s protest followed similar scenes in Sweden earlier this month when Kurdish protesters hung an effigy of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from a lamp-post.
Swedish foreign minister Tobias Billstrom declined to immediately comment on Erdoğan’s remarks, telling Reuters in a written statement he wanted to understand exactly what had been said.
“But Sweden will respect the agreement that exists between Sweden, Finland and Turkey regarding our Nato membership,” he added.
Swedish leaders roundly condemned the protest but defended their country’s broad definition of free speech.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act,” prime minister Ulf Kristersson tweeted on Saturday.
“I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today.”
However, Erdoğan said the burning of the Muslim holy book was a hate crime that could not be defended by free speech.
“No one has the right to humiliate the saints,” he said in nationally televised remarks.
Sweden and Finland applied last year to join Nato following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but all 30 member states must approve their bids. Ankara has previously said Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against groups it sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish militants and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
Turkey and Hungary are the only Nato members not to have ratified the Sweden and Finland’s historic decision to break their tradition of military non-alignment.
US state department spokesperson Ned Price said Finland and Sweden are ready to join the alliance, but declined to comment on whether Washington thought Erdoğan’s comments meant a definitive shutting of the door to them.
“Ultimately, this is a decision and consensus that Finland and Sweden are going to have to reach with Turkey,” Price said.
Price told reporters that burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act, adding that the United States is cognisant that those who are behind what took place in Sweden may be intentionally trying to weaken unity across the Atlantic and among Washington’s European allies.
“We have a saying in this country – something can be lawful but awful. I think in this case, what we’ve seen in the context of Sweden falls into that category,” Price said.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, condemned Erdoğan’s position on Sweden.
In an interview with German title Die Welt, he said that “freedom of expression, freedom of opinion is a precious commodity, in Sweden and in all other Nato countries. And that is why these inappropriate acts are not automatically illegal.”
The Qur’an-burning was carried out by Rasmus Paludan, leader of Danish far-right political party Hard Line.
Paludan, who also has Swedish citizenship, gave an hour-long speech against Islam and immigration before setting fire to a copy of the Qur’an.
Several Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait denounced the event. Turkey had already summoned Sweden’s ambassador and cancelled a planned visit by the Swedish defence minister to Ankara.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.