WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly criticized Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent statement that Zionism is a crime against humanity, speaking during a press conference in Ankara on Friday.

“Obviously we not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable,” Kerry said while standing beside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after their meeting, part of Kerry’s first visit as secretary to a Muslim country.

He noted that he had a “very direct and very honest conversation” about the matter and would raise it with Erdogan himself when they met later in the day.

“But that said, Turkey and Israel are both vital allies of the United States,” Kerry added. “We want to see them work together in order to be able to go beyond the rhetoric and begin to take concrete steps to change this relationship.”

He said he believed that was possible and that Davutoglu had expressed “a genuine desire” to do so.

During a speech Wednesday in Vienna, Erdogan said, “Just as with Zionism, anti- Semitism and Fascism, it has become necessary to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”

Davutoglu, when asked about Erdogan’s comments and other recent “hostile” statements toward Israel, replied, “This is not an attitude toward a country. This is not an attitude toward a community.

We are just reacting toward a hostile conduct.”

Referring to the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, in which Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish citizens as they tried to break the Gaza blockade in May 2010, he maintained, “No single statement carries a price higher than the blood of a person.”

Ahead of the Davutoglu meeting, a White House official had even harsher words for Erdogan’s comments.

“We reject Prime Minister Erdogan’s characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity, which is offensive and wrong,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

“We encourage people of all faiths, cultures and ideas to denounce hateful actions and to overcome the differences of our times,” he said.

Several members of Congress have also registered their condemnation.

“The Turkish leader is taking the region back to the ugliness of the past just as Israel was reaching out to improve relations with Ankara,” said Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He praised Kerry for speaking out against the comments, but stressed, “It is time that the rest of the international community make clear to the Turkish government that it must end the hate-filled rhetoric toward Israel and halt the dangerous threats of regional escalation.”

Rep. Steve Israel (D–New York) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) also announced on Friday that they would be circulating a letter calling on Erdogan to retract his statements.

“It is unacceptable for national leaders like Prime Minister Erdogan to be spouting hateful rhetoric that further threatens unrest in an already perilous region,” the two members of Congress said in a joint statement.

“Zionism is a non-discriminatory affirmation of Jewish nationhood.”

A spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that Erdogan’s comment, if interpreted correctly, was not only wrong but contradicts the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilizations is based.

Erdogan made his comment at the UN’s Alliance of Civilizations event in Vienna.

“The secretary-general believes is it is unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership,” Ban’s spokesman said.

“Religious intolerance – anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination – are all too real in too many parts of the world. We must stand united in confronting these life-and-death threats to the community fabric,” Ban’s spokesman said.

In spite of Erdogan’s latest anti-Israel rhetoric, MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) was in Istanbul on Thursday and Friday, to participate in the Young Presidents Organization’s Global Leadership Summit.

Herzog said, “One feels there is a clear difference between the political leadership and the connections between the people themselves.”

He said he believed that there was “goodwill on behalf of the Israeli leadership” toward Turkey, and that it had made efforts to repair the rift between the two countries.

He noted that trade between Israel and Turkey has increased and that it was important for both countries to find a way to mend their relationship.

Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.