Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday he would pay close attention to religious sensibilities in his new role as NATO chief in comments aimed at allaying Muslim concerns at his appointment.
Turkey had threatened to veto Rasmussen’s appointment over his handling of a 2006 crisis triggered by cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper. His comments fell short of the outright apology which Turkish officials had hoped for.
“I respect Islam as one of the world’s major religions as well as its religious symbols,” Rasmussen said during a panel discussion at an Istanbul conference aimed at building bridges between the Muslim world and the West.
The conference coincided with Barack Obama’s first visit to the Muslim world as U.S. president. Obama was meeting Turkish officials in Ankara on Monday and was due to attend a dinner at the conference.
“I was deeply distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to mark and insult or behave disrespectively towards Islam or the Prophet Mohammad. Nothing could be further from my mind,” Rasmussen said.
The NATO row, which threatened the image of unity at the military alliance’s 60th anniversary summit, was resolved after Obama guaranteed that Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance’s command and that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be a Turk.
Rasmussen had previously defended the publication of the cartoons, which caused protests in the Muslim world, on the grounds of free speech and refused to apologise to Muslim countries.
“During my tenure as the secretary general of NATO I will pay close attention to the religious and cultural sensibilities of the different communities that populate our increasingly pluralistic and globalised world,” Rasmussen said.
NATO is engaged in the biggest military operation in its history in Afghanistan, and Turkey, the only mainly Muslim member of the alliance, had said Rasmussen’s appointment would make the alliance’s mission there harder.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan initiated the “Alliance of Civilisations” forum which was meeting in Istanbul, told the conference that a peaceful Afghanistan was crucial.
“We want Afghanistan to stand on its own feet. We want to reconcile the civilian population to put an end to terror and offer the Afghan people every opportunity to live in peace and development,” he said.
Erdogan called for greater efforts to overcome religious and cultural divisions.
“We still have the opportunity to write the history of this century, which we began with conflict and polarisation based on religious and cultural differences, as one of peace, harmony and tolerance,” Erdogan said in a speech opening the conference.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was also attending the conference, said the forum could help prevent future conflicts before they emerge.
“All too often, the United Nations must deal with fires after they break out. Through the Alliance of Civilisations, we can stamp out the sparks before they catch,” Ban said.