Report: German intelligence ponders putting pro-Erdoğan DİTİB under surveillance

Central Mosque in Cologne with unidentified people, still under construction, commissioned by German Muslims of DITIB for a large representative central mosque.

German intelligence is reportedly examining whether to put the pro-Erdoğan Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB), which has been at the center of a series of controversies, under surveillance ahead of a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s to Germany at the end of September, according to a report by Deutsche Welle (DW) on Friday.

The report said that Germany’s domestic intelligence agency is deciding whether to put the country’s largest Islamic umbrella group under official surveillance, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and public broadcasters NDR and WDR reported on Thursday.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has sent a confidential dossier to each of Germany’s 16 states on the DİTİB. The states were reportedly asked to provide material and comments to establish whether DİTİB’s activities meet strict requirements to put it under observation. The issue is to be discussed at a meeting between the BfV and its state security agencies in November.

According to the report, DİTİB runs more than 900 mosques tied to the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which provides financing and imams to the mosques. The possible move against DİTİB comes a week before Erdoğan arrives in Germany for a state visit. During the two-day visit, Erdoğan will officially open DİTİB’s new central mosque at its headquarters in the western city of Cologne.

In the wake of a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, DİTİB has been accused of acting as the long arm of the Erdoğan regime in Germany. Last year, German authorities investigated 19 imams alleged to have acted on the orders of Turkish diplomatic posts to spy on followers of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen.

In another scandal, DİTİB imams in January reportedly called on worshippers to pray for a Turkish military victory during its offensive against Syrian Kurds in Afrin. DİTİB again came under fire in April for holding a World War I military re-enactment involving Turkish flags and fake guns handed to child “martyrs.” Last year, DİTİB stirred controversy by refusing to take part in an anti-terrorism march in Cologne.

DİTİB has repeatedly stated that it is apolitical and that any errant acts were those of individual imams, not the whole mosque association.

The Interior Ministry in Berlin did not comment on the details of the media report. However, it told the news outlets the BfV had determined, in connection to the Turkish military operation in Afrin, “that persons tied to individual DİTİB mosque congregations developed anti-constitutional nationalist-religious activities and made corresponding statements.”

The Islamism department of the BfV reportedly believes there is a need to review whether DİTİB should be put under surveillance. The focal point is the Cologne headquarters of the mosque association.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, where DİTİB headquarters are located, the state BfV office said Turkish-nationalist activities are “a danger to internal peace” and are being watched with concern. “They are driving a wedge into the Turkish community and boosting Islamophobic tendencies,” a spokesperson told the media outlets.

Some states are cautioning against putting DİTİB under surveillance. “We strongly advise against it,” said one state security official, adding that the political risks would be enormous if DİTİB were labeled an enemy of the constitutional order. The Foreign Ministry is reportedly “not enthusiastic” about the idea.

Under Germany’s decentralized security structure, the observation of mosques in the federal states is the responsibility of the BfV state offices. In 2016, the BfV said that around 90 “predominately Arabic-speaking” mosques across the country were under surveillance.

A BfV determination to classify DİTİB as a “suspected case” or a target to put under surveillance would allow for the use of advanced intelligence methods, including recruiting agents, covert surveillance and communications interception.

For many years, DİTİB was a partner in many government-supported counter-extremism and integration projects. Last month, the Interior Ministry announced it had stopped funding projects with DİTİB.

DİTİB is a member of the German Islamic Conference, a body designed to promote dialogue between the state and Muslims living in the country. If DİTİB were placed under BfV surveillance, it would have to leave the body, according to DW’s report.

Meanwhile, two German deputies declined an invitation from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to attend a state banquet for Erdoğan during his official visit to Germany this month.

Bijan Djir-Sarai, a German deputy and Free Democratic Party spokesperson on foreign relations, told Die Welt newspaper that he could not have dinner with Erdoğan in an environment where German nationals were held in Turkish prisons and Ankara continued to slip further away from democracy and human rights.

The German politician also criticised the German government for allowing Erdoğan to make a speech at the opening ceremony of the mosque in Germany’s northern city of Cologne during his visit. “Erdoğan should not be offered a platform that will allow him to promote his policies,” Djir-Sarai said on Twitter.

Sevim Dağdelen, a member of the Left Party and Bundestag lawmaker of Kurdish origin, said she preferred to attend the protests against Erdoğan instead of having dinner with him at the presidential palace, DW reported.

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