Czechs Seek to Soothe Arab Countries Outraged by Zeman

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Czech government sought to smooth relations with Arab nations after Muslim organizations protested President Milos Zeman’s statements linking Islam to a deadly terrorist attack in Brussels.

Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek met ambassadors of Arab countries in Prague today to tell them that “the Czech Republic rejects the spread of hatred and intolerance and is actively supporting inter-religious and multicultural dialog,” according to a ministry statement. Zaoralek is against “automatically linking” any religion to violence, the CTK news service cited him as saying.

The meeting, which the ministry said was a regular event, took place after the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization denounced what they said were derogatory comments by Zeman made two days after the attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum.

While anti-immigration parties made inroads across the European Union in elections to the bloc’s Parliament last month, nationalist groups are gaining little traction in the Czech Republic. Even so, relations with Muslims worsened in April after police in Prague raided two Islamic religious centers during prayers, seeking a man they said was publishing and distributing a book inciting xenophobia.

France arrested Mehdi Nemmouche, who had a history of jail time and “religious radicalism,” as the prime suspect in the May 24 attack in Belgium, in which four people were killed.

‘Very Foundations’

“I won’t be placated by declarations that these are only small, marginal groups,” Zeman said at a reception celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, according to a transcript posted on his website. “On the contrary, I believe that this xenophobia; this -- let’s call it racism or antisemitism -- is stemming from the very foundations of the ideology that these fanatical groups are based upon.”

Zeman had ruffled feathers abroad during his term as the Czech prime minister more than a decade ago. In 2002, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted him as equating Palestinians with Sudeten Germans, ethnic Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II.

While he said the newspaper misquoted him as comparing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler, then-President Vaclav Havel said he was “deeply concerned” by the comments.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Laca in Prague at placa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net Paul Abelsky, Andrew Langley