Austria said Friday it could expel up to 60 Turkish-funded imams and their families and would shut down seven mosques as part of a crackdown on “political Islam”, triggering fury in Ankara.
“The circle of people possibly affected by these measures — the pool that we’re talking about — comprises around 60 imams,” said Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in Austria’s coalition government.
Kickl was referring to imams with alleged links to the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB) organisation, a branch of Turkey’s religious affairs agency Diyanet.
Kickl added the government suspects them of contravening a ban on foreign funding of religious office holders.
The ministry said 40 of them had an active application for extending their residency and that a number of these had already been referred to immigration authorities, where a process for expelling them was underway.
Once family members were taken into account, a total of 150 people risked losing their right to residence, Kickl told a Vienna press conference.
Ankara quickly denounced the move.
“Austria’s decision to close down seven mosques and deport imams with a lame excuse is a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country”, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.
However other European far-right leaders welcomed the announcement.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, said on Twitter: “Austria is taking things in hand and showing that ‘when you want to, you can!'”
Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s League and interior minister in the new government, also tweeted his approval, saying: “Those who exploit their faith to endanger a country’s security should be expelled!”
– ‘Laughable’ claims –
Seven mosques will also be shut after an investigation by Austria’s religious affairs authority sparked by images which emerged in April of children in a Turkish-backed mosque playing dead and re-enacting the World War I battle of Gallipoli.
The photos of children, published by the Falter weekly, showed the young boys in camouflage uniforms marching, saluting, waving Turkish flags and then playing dead.
Their “corpses” were then lined up and draped in the flags.
The mosque in question was run by ATIB.
ATIB itself condemned the photos at the time, calling the event “highly regrettable” and saying it was “called off before it had even ended”.
Asked to address the question of foreign funding of imams on Austria’s O1 radio station, ATIB spokesman Yasar Ersoy confirmed Friday its imams were paid by Turkish authorities but said that this was made necessary by a lack of training and funding for imams in Austria.
One of the mosques targeted by Friday’s measure was in the Favoriten district of Vienna.
The government said it had been operating illegally and that it was under the influence of the far-right Turkish political movement, the Grey Wolves.
Worshippers arriving for Friday prayers were met with a sign on the door reading “closed” in Turkish and German.
Kursant, a 26-year-old, told AFP: “I’ve been coming to this mosque since I was a child. I’ve never heard anyone at the mosque… express any Salafist opinions. That’s laughable.”
He also denied the mosque had any links to Turkish political parties.
Six other mosques are being closed down, three in Vienna, two in Upper Austria and one in Carinthia.
All but one of the mosques affected belong to the “Arab Religious Association,” according to the government.
– Strained relations –
Even Austria’s opposition parties were broadly supportive of Friday’s announcement, with the centre-left Social Democrats calling it “the first sensible thing this government’s done”.
However the Green Party pointed out it could serve as a propaganda victory for the Turkish government.
Turkey’s relations with Austria have long been strained, most recently when Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he would ban Turkish politicians from campaigning in Austria for upcoming elections.
Around 360,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria, including 117,000 Turkish nationals.
Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked Kurz, saying: “This immoral chancellor has a problem with us”.
Both Kurz, of the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) and the FPOe made immigration and integration major themes in their election campaigns last year.
The topic had been pushed up the political agenda by the migrant crisis of 2015-16, which saw more than 150,000 people seek asylum in the country of 8.7 million.
In Friday’s press conference Kurz was keen to emphasise that the action was being taken under legislation to regulate Islamic associations that he himself brought in as a minister in the previous government and which had so far — in his opinion — not been used often enough.