Austrian gov’t to shut down mosques, expel 60 Turkish imams

Austria’s right-wing government plans to shut down seven mosques and expel up to 60 pro-government Turkish imams in what it said was “just the beginning” of a push against Islamist ideology and foreign funding of religious groups.

According to a report by Reuters on Friday, 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 clamp down on benefits for new immigrants and refugees.

In a previous job as minister in charge of integration, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz oversaw the passing of a tough “law on Islam” in 2015, which banned foreign funding of religious groups and created a duty for Muslim societies 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,” Kurz told a news conference outlining the government’s decisions, which were based on that law.

Austria, a country of 8,8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim residents, most of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin. One society that runs a mosque in Vienna and is influenced by the “Grey Wolves,” a Turkish nationalist youth group, would be shut down for operating illegally, the government said in a statement. An Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques would also be shut down, it added.

“This is just the beginning,” Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told the news conference held by the four cabinet members.

Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalin said the move was the result of an “Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave” in Austria and was an attempt to target Muslim communities for political gain. “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,” he tweeted. “Efforts to normalize Islamophobia and racism must be rejected under all circumstances,” said Kalın.

The ministers said up to 60 imams belonging to European-Turkish Islamic Union (ATİB), an Islamist group close to the Turkish government led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on 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.

Turkish Foreign Ministry on Friday slammed Austria over its decision to shut down seven mosques and expel 40 imams. In a written statement, the Foreign Ministry said it “regretted” the Austrian move against the mosques and the decision to not grant residence permits to religious officials sent from Turkey to Austria.

“We condemn Austrian politicians, especially Chancellor Kurz, for trying to achieve political interest from these alarming developments, rather than fighting racism, islamophobia and xenophobia and the rise of the extreme right,” it said.

“The ideological stance of the Austrian government is contrary to universal legal norms, social cohesion policies, minority law and the morality of living together. The normalization and the banalization of Islamophobia and racism must be rejected with certainty,” it added.

The statement also said Austria’s move also contributes to the rise of Islamophobia and racism in Europe. It added that this decision also affects ongoing efforts to normalize ties between Turkey and Austria, and the harmony of Turkish community in Austria.

Speaking to reporters in central Kırşehir province after Friday prayers, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ termed the Austrian move as “unacceptable.” Bozdağ described the decision as “the destruction of freedom of religion and conscience, and the values that define Europe”.

He said Austria’s move also reflect “the violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.” “It is not possible for Turkey to accept this,” he added. Bozdağ said that the decision of the Austrian government would greatly damage the Austrian state through the rise of Islamophobia, racism, extremism and discrimination.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Austria’s controversial decision “shows the point some countries, politicians have reached in racism and Islamaphobia.” Çavuşoğlu said the same racist Islamophobic politicians will drag Europe to the edge of an abyss. He vowed to stand against such injustices and to defend the rights of Turkish expats.

Later, Çavuşoğlu spoke over the phone with his Austrian counterpart on the country’s decision, according to a Turkish diplomatic source. He expressed his “discomfort” to Karin Kneissl over Kurz’s statement on the issue, the source, who asked not to be named due to restrictions on talking to the media, said.

After President Erdoğan announced new elections set for June 24, Austria announced that it would not allow any campaigning for the Turkish elections to take place on its soil.

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