Kerry in Turkey - AP - March 1, 2013
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a news conference in Turkey in March. Photo by AP
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Like Ben Hur driving two chariots simultaneously, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling against both the country's religious leadership and media. Photo by Bloomberg

U.S.­ Secretary of State John Kerry says comments by the Turkish prime minister equating Zionism to a crime against humanity complicate the efforts to find peace in the Middle East.

Speaking at a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Kerry stressed the "urgent need to promote a spirit of tolerance, and that includes all of the public statements made by all leaders."

Kerry said he had raised the comments "very directly" with Davutoglu and would do the same when he saw Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later on Friday.

Addressing the UN Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna this week, 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."

Kerry said the on the U.S. side, "we not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable."

He added: "I believe there is a way forward, but it obviously gets more complicated in the aftermath of a speech such as the one we heard in Vienna."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also 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 Nations joined the criticism.

Davutoglu at the news conference with Kerry denied that Turkish officials were uttering hostile or offensive language. He repeatedly referred to the deaths of nine civilians at the hands of Israeli commandos aboard a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in 2010.

He added: "If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey, it needs to review its attitude. It needs to review its attitude toward us, and it needs to review its attitude toward the people in the region and especially the West Bank settlements issue."

Kerry said that despite the comments, he was hopeful Turkey and Israel could eventually find a way to restore their previously close relations.

The uproar has overshadowed 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.

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 deteriorated sharply after the 2010 raid.

Turkey is a co-sponsor, along with Spain, of the UN initiative to promote tolerance and understanding between various religions.

A UN 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 UN 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.

Kerry's 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.