Quran burnings should not prevent Swedish NATO membership, says NATO chief

FILE - NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during an interview after meeting U.S. President Joe Biden and the Bucharest Nine leaders in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
By Thomas Brooke
4 Min Read

Turkey must not insist on the criminalization of Quran burnings in Sweden before approving the country’s NATO membership, Jens Stoltenberg, the defense alliance’s chief, said on Wednesday.

In an interview with Swedish broadcaster SVT, the NATO boss reminded Turkey that such a condition was not included in the agreement reached between Finland and Sweden, the two countries vying for NATO membership, and existing NATO members at a summit in Madrid in June last year.

“I have conveyed in Turkey that you can have different opinions about Koran burnings. Many countries have laws that limit that type of action, but you can’t ban everything you don’t like,” Stoltenberg told SVT’s “30 minutes” program.

“There is a lot that can be provocative and disrespectful but which should still be legal. But the point is that it is an issue that was not included in the agreement and should not prevent Sweden from becoming a member of NATO.

“It is important that we do not reopen the negotiations that we concluded in Madrid a year ago,” he added.

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Stoltenberg’s intervention comes as NATO talks between Sweden, Finland and Turkey resume on Thursday, and the NATO boss is keen to remind all participants that the purpose of the meeting is to affirm whether or not both applicant nations have fulfilled the requirements of the agreement made at the Madrid summit.

Turkey and the wider Islamic world were incensed in January this year when the Swedish government approved a demonstration by fringe Danish politician Rasmus Paludan, the controversial leader of the right-wing, identitarian Stram Kurs party in Denmark, during which he burned a copy of the Islamic holy book outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

The Turkish government pulled talks with Sweden and Finland over their NATO membership aspirations as a result, and the diplomatic fallout was further fueled by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who claimed his country would veto any membership bid while Sweden continues to permit the burning of the Quran as a legitimate act of freedom of expression.

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“As long as you allow my holy book, the Koran, to be burned and torn to pieces, we will not say yes to your entry into NATO. Our view of Finland is positive, but not of Sweden,” Erdoğan said at the time.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billström rejected the demand, stating his country does “not comprise on freedom of expression.”

“It is very clear what is required for Sweden to become a member of NATO and that is that we meet the requirements stated in the trilateral memorandum,” he added.

The Swedish government has, however, intervened following the political fallout earlier this year and banned some demonstrations where organizers expressed their intention to burn the Quran. This has included a protest that was due to be held last month by anti-NATO campaigners who wished to further derail the nation’s membership bid.

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