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Turkey threatens to block Sweden NATO bid after Quran burning

A series of anti-Islamic protests in Stockholm over the weekend drew sharp condemnation from Turkey’s president, who warned Sweden should not expect Ankara’s support for its pending NATO membership.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (CN) — On Saturday, the leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line and 50 supporters demonstrated against Islam outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. The protests culminated in a burning of the Quran.

The demonstration, led by Danish-Swedish anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan, took place under close police supervision and controlled conditions. Yet it immediately sparked strong reactions abroad – not just in Turkey, where a Swedish flag was burned during protests in Istanbul, but also in Iraq, as several demonstrators gathered in front of the Swedish embassy to express their anger.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Sweden should not expect any support from Ankara for its plan to join the NATO military defense alliance.

“It is clear that those who allowed such vileness to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their NATO membership application,” Erdoğan said in remarks Monday, as reported by the Associated Press.

Sweden and Finland jointly applied for NATO membership back last May, hoping to boost security and border control after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and concerns the Kremlin would increase its military presence in the north.

However, in order to join the alliance, the two countries need approval from all 30 members.

From the beginning, Turkey has been hesitant, mainly because Sweden has so far refused Erdoğan's demand to hand over dozens of people he believes have ties to Kurdish militants in Turkey.

Paludan´s weekend demonstrations in Stockholm have further complicated the relationship. Erdoğan heavily criticized Swedish authorities for facilitating the protests by offering security forces, and according to AP, he said Sweden was “letting terror organizations run wild in their avenues.”

On Saturday, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson took to Twitter to express sympathy "for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today.”

”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," he said.

Still, the Swedish government declined to stop the protests, citing the country´s extensive freedom of speech protections.

Denmark has witnessed the same dilemma in recent years. Sweden's Scandinavian neighbor also saw unrest after Paludan´s demonstrations in 2019, when he burned a Quran in the multiethnic area of Nørrebro in Copenhagen. Afterwards, locals took to the streets in what ended up being a daylong violent clash with police authorities, including street fires, tear gas, rock-throwing and barricades.

Back then, Danish politicians referred to the same constitutional right of expressing one´s opinion publicly, as long as it does not include violence. Denmark condemned Paludan´s actions at the time.

Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Lars Løkke Rasmussen did so again Monday after Paludan´s latest protests in Stockholm.

“It is shameful that we have a Danish-Swede, namely Paludan, who acts like this. We have experienced ourselves in a Danish context and have moved on from it. Now, he tours in Sweden,” he told Danish broadcaster DR.

The Swedish and Turkish defense ministers were scheduled to meet and discuss cooperation in NATO on Friday. The meeting has been canceled.

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