April 6, 2009 / 8:40 AM / 9 years ago

New NATO chief pledges conciliation with Muslims

<p>Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses the media during his news conference after the NATO summit in Strasbourg, April 4, 2009. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch</p>

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - 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 concern at his appointment.

Turkey had threatened to veto the former Danish prime minister’s appointment over his handling of a 2006 crisis triggered by cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper.

His comments at an Istanbul conference on Monday fell short of the outright apology which Turkish officials had hoped for.

“I was deeply distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to mark and insult or behave disrespectfully toward Islam or the Prophet Mohammad. Nothing could be further from my mind,” he said

“I respect Islam as one of the world’s major religions as well as its religious symbols,” he said during a panel discussion at the 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. He was meeting Turkish officials in Ankara on Monday and was due to attend a dinner at the conference.

The row over his appointment, which threatened the image of unity at NATO’s 60th anniversary summit, was resolved after Obama guaranteed Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance’s command and that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be a Turk.

Rasmussen previously defended publication of the cartoons, which caused protests in the Muslim world, on the grounds of free speech and refused to apologize 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 globalized world,” Rasmussen said.

At a news conference, he addressed Turkish concerns at Denmark’s failure to halt broadcasts by the Kurdish Roj television station, which Turkey says supports the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrilla group.

“If sufficient evidence is provided we will do all we can to close this television station, of course within the framework of Danish legislation,” he said, his arm in a sling after dislocating his shoulder in an accident in his hotel room in the early hours of Monday.

AFGHANISTAN CRUCIAL

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 Civilizations” 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 polarization 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, also attending, 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 Civilizations, we can stamp out the sparks before they catch,” Ban said.

Writing by Daren Butler; editing by Alison Williams

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