ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's prime minister drew sharp criticism for comments equating Zionism to a crime against humanity at a U.N. meeting promoting dialogue between faiths, and a U.S. official said Secretary of State John Kerry will take him to task Friday for the "particularly offensive" remark.
Addressing the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna this week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained of prejudices against Muslims. He said Islamophobia should be considered a crime against humanity "just like Zionism, like anti-Semitism and like fascism."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply condemned the remark late Thursday, calling it a "dark and mendacious statement, the likes of which we thought had passed from the world." The United States and the United Nations joined the criticism.
In Washington, U.S. National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor said the characterization about Zionism, the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state, was "offensive and wrong."
"We encourage people of all faiths, cultures, and ideas to denounce hateful actions and to overcome the differences of our times," he said.
The uproar threatens to overshadow Kerry's previously planned visit to the Turkish capital, where he had hoped to spend much of his time discussing the crisis in neighboring Syria and coordinating plans with the Turks to assist the Syrian opposition, which is fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
Instead, Kerry flew into Ankara from Rome on Friday with the controversy in full swing, and a senior official accompanying him said Kerry would make a point of raising the matter in meetings with Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
The official told reporters on Kerry's plane that President Barack Obama's administration was profoundly concerned by Erdogan's words and said such comments had a "corrosive effect" on Turkish-U.S. ties. The official said Erdogan's comments and other previous harsh criticism of Israel by senior Turkish officials have kept ties between Israel and Turkey "frozen" to the detriment of regional and international security.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly preview Kerry's diplomatic meetings.
The deterioration of Turkish-Israel relations has been a matter of deep worry for the U.S., which has unsuccessfully sought to push the two countries to get back on friendly terms.
Turkey and Israel were once important allies but relations have deteriorated sharply after an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in 2010, which killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.
Turkey is a co-sponsor, along with Spain, of the U.N initiative to promote tolerance and understanding between various religions.
A U.N. statement said: "If the comment about Zionism was interpreted correctly, then it was not only wrong, but contradicts the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilizations is based."
The statement said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "believes it is unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership."
Turkey's state-run news agency, Anadolu, reported Erdogan's remarks on Wednesday but removed the reference to "Zionism" in a correction sent out an hour later. It said the correction was "made by the source" but gave no other explanation.
Erdogan, whose ruling party has roots in Turkey's Islamic movement, frequently criticizes Israeli actions against Palestinians but rarely speaks out against Zionism. In November, he accused Israel of state terrorism and of an "attempt at ethnic cleansing," a euphemism that describes using violence to force a population to flee an area.
Kerry is in NATO ally Turkey on the fourth leg of a nine-nation dash through Europe and the Middle East that is his first official overseas trip as secretary of state. Kerry has spent much of his time at his first three stops — Britain, Germany and Italy — focusing on the conflict in Syria.
On Thursday in Rome, he announced that the Obama administration would begin for the first time to supply assistance, albeit non-lethal, directly to the Free Syrian Army and pledged an additional $60 million in aid to the political opposition.
Kerry first stop in Ankara on Friday was the U.S. Embassy where he spoke at a memorial service for a local Turkish security guard who was killed in a Feb. 1 suicide attack at the embassy gates. Kerry presented the man's family with an award for heroism.
From Turkey, Kerry will travel to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before returning to Washington in the middle of next week.