June 8, 2018
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s right-wing government plans to shut seven mosques and could expel dozens of imams in what it said was “just the beginning” of a push against radical Islam and foreign funding of religious groups that Turkey condemned as racist.
The coalition government, an alliance of conservatives and the far right, came to power soon after Europe’s migration crisis on promises to prevent another influx and restrict benefits for new immigrants and refugees.
The moves follow a “law on Islam”, passed in 2015, which banned foreign funding of religious groups and created a duty for Muslim organizations to have “a positive fundamental view towards (Austria’s) state and society”.
“Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who, in a previous job as minister in charge of integration, steered the Islam bill into law.
Standing next to him and two other cabinet members on Friday, far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told a news conference: “This is just the beginning.”
Austria, a country of 8.8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants, most of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said the new policy was part of an “Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave” in Austria.
“The Austrian government’s ideologically charged practices are in violation of universal legal principles, social integration policies, minority rights and the ethics of co-existence,” Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.
The ministers at the news conference said up to 60 imams belonging to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), a Muslim group close to the Turkish government, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on the grounds of receiving foreign funding.
A government handout put the number at 40, of whom 11 were under review and two had already received a negative ruling.
Erdogan warns Austria: ‘Imam crackdown will lead to holy war’
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday strongly criticized Austria’s move to close mosques and expel Turkish-funded imams, slamming the decision as anti-Islamic and promising a response.
“These measures taken by the Austrian prime minister are, I fear, leading the world toward a war between the cross and the crescent,” Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul.
The crescent is a symbol associated with Islam.
His comments came the day after the Austrian government announced 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.
Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in Austria’s coalition government said the move concerned 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.
A Turkish presidential spokesman had on Friday described the Austrian move as “a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country”.
However, other European far-right leaders welcomed the announcement.
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.”
But the Green Party pointed out it could serve as a propaganda victory for the Turkish government.
Erdogan, speaking Saturday, said: “They say they’re going to kick our religious men out of Austria. Do you think we will not react if you do such a thing?”
“That means we’re going to have to do something,” he added without elaborating.
Around 360,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria, including 117,000 Turkish nationals.
Relations between Ankara and Vienna have been strained since a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016 which was followed by a wave of arrests.
Erdogan’s speech comes in the run-up to presidential and legislative elections on June 24 in which he faces stiff opposition.
The Austrian government has banned Turkish officials from holding meetings in the country ahead of the polls.