ANKARA - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came under fire Monday for deriding a monument to friendship with neighbouring Armenia and ordering its destruction.
The country's culture minister sought to soothe the criticism, arguing that Erdogan was misunderstood.
"We would never show disrespect to the work of any artist. We would never attempt to destroy and throw away the work of an artist," Ertugrul Gunay told reporters.
On a visit to the eastern town of Kars on Sunday, Erdogan slammed "a monstrosity... a weird thing erected" near the tomb of an Islamic scholar, according to media reports.
He urged the local mayor, a member of his ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, to demolish the monument, erected near the border with Armenia, and replace it with a park.
Gunay argued the prime minister did not target the statue but referred to the illegal construction of shanty houses in an area which is home to century-old Islamic monuments.
The 30-metre (100-foot) unfinished concrete statue, depicting two figures emerging from one human shape, was commissioned in 2006 to place emphasis on friendship between the two neighbours, long divided by bloody history and mistrust.
The sculptor, Mehmet Aksoy, defended his work, saying on NTV television its destruction would recall the demolition by the Taliban of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan's Bamiyan valley in 2001 that stunned the world.
Gunay praised the artist and pledged that local officials would try to find a solution to the dispute, but argued the monument's demolition was a long-standing possibility unrelated to Erdogan's remarks.
The authorities, he said, already ruled in 2009 that the monument had been erected in an area where construction is banned to preserve surrounding historical and natural monuments.
Government opponents denounced Erdogan's comments, with former culture minister Ercan Karakas saying they were a "shame" and that "the sculpture is neither strange nor ugly."
Veteran columnist Tarhan Erdem warned that Erdogan's outburst would deal a blow to his democratic credentials and urged the prime minister to retract his remarks.
"Prime ministers may or may not like a statue... they may wish the statue had not been erected. But they cannot decide (for statues) not to be erected or to be demolished," he wrote in the liberal daily Radikal.
In 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed landmark accords to end decades of animosity, establish diplomatic relations and re-open their border.
But the reconciliation drive faltered amid mutual accusations that the other side was not committed to the terms of the deal, prompting Armenia to freeze the ratification process of the accords in April last year.
Bilateral ties have been poisoned over Armenian accusations that up to 1.5 million of their kin fell victim to genocide during World War I under the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey rejects the "genocide" label, countering that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian forces.