Turkish President Erdoğan and his German counterpart exchange barbs during state dinner

A state dinner for controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Berlin became awkward late Friday.

In his speech, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lamented the deterioration of the rule of law and human rights in Turkey, and Erdoğan accused Germany of hosting “hundreds, thousands” of terrorists, according to a report by Deutsche Welle (DW).

Steinmeier opened his address at the presidential palace by praising a long history of relations between the two countries, including Turkey’s role in accepting persecuted Jews and Germans during Nazi rule. He later alluded to recent times, when thousands of Turkish citizens have sought refuge abroad from an increasingly authoritarian Turkey under Erdoğan.

“Eighty years ago, Germans found refuge in Turkey — today, a worryingly large number of people from Turkey are seeking refuge here in Germany from the growing pressure on civil society,” Steinmeier said before Erdoğan, his wife Emine and distinguished guests.

“As we discussed this morning in detail, I am, as president of this country, concerned about German citizens who are imprisoned in Turkey for political reasons, and I am also concerned about Turkish journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, intellectuals and politicians who remain behind bars,” Steinmeier went on to say.

The deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey and the detention of German nationals have put an added strain on relations between Berlin and Ankara. Steinmeier expressed hope that freedom, rule of law and human rights would return to Turkey more than two years after a failed coup attempt against Erdoğan.

According to DW, in his speech Erdoğan among other things told Steinmeier that he seemed to have “received false information” regarding the arrests that have taken place in Turkey. He also slammed Germany for “hosting thousands of terrorists” from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Gülen movement.

“Thousands of members of the PKK, which is recognized as a terrorist group by the EU, walk freely in Germany,” Erdoğan claimed, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. “The FETO terror organization, unfortunately, hundreds, thousands of them are walking freely in Germany.”

He claimed that “PKK terrorists” hold demonstrations in German streets and carry posters of the head of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Erdoğan said these activities were prohibited according to German law and asked, “Then why are these [events] allowed?”

Eroğan also criticized Germany for hosting Can Dündar, a prominent Turkish journalist living in Germany who was convicted of espionage for publishing stories about the Turkish National Intelligence Organization’s (MİT) arms shipments to Syrian jihadists.

“When journalists are involved in acts of terrorism and have been condemned by a Turkish court, how can anyone still defend them?” he asked. “And here he gets a nice role.”

Earlier Friday, during a heated press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdoğan, a Turkish journalist protesting press freedom in Turkey was escorted out of the room.

Erdoğan also used the press conference to call for Germany to extradite Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper. Turkey is also demanding the extradition of dozens of alleged followers of the PKK and Gülen movement. Germany considers the PKK a terrorist organization but has not applied the same label to the Gülen movement.

Erdoğan’s three-day state visit drew thousands of protesters into the streets on Saturday, before he opened a new mosque in the western city of Cologne. Hundreds of people, including several from the city’s Kurdish community, gathered in the city’s Deutz district on the banks of the Rhine River ahead of a planned march towards the city center.

According to authorities, as many as 10,000 people are expected to take part in the protests, although a number of Erdoğan supporters also lined the main street leading to the mosque to greet Erdoğan.

The mosque in Cologne was built by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) the largest umbrella organization of mosques in Germany. DİTİB manages about 900 mosques in the country, including the central mosque in Cologne, and has about 800,000 members throughout Germany.

Its ties to Turkey are very strong. According to the official research service for the German Bundestag, which has created a register of Islamic organizations in Germany, its charter states that DİTİB is “linked to the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs [Diyane].”

The Diyanet sends Turkish imams to DİTİB mosques; the imams’ salaries are then paid by the respective Turkish consulate general for the duration of their stay. In other words, the Diyanet determines the theological guidelines behind what is preached in the mosques.

DİTİB has come under repeated criticism in recent years, partly because of the Diyanet’s influence. Following the Turkish army’s invasion of northern Syria in January, the head of the Diyanet urged mosque worshippers to pray for Turkey’s victory. DİTİB mosques in Germany showed videos of preschoolers in uniform, and events held there in commemoration of World War I seem to have featured re-enacted battles and the praise of “martyrs” as part of proceedings.

According to a report by DW, last year, DİTİB refused to take part in a protest organized by Muslim associations in Cologne against Islamist terror. Also in 2017, the complete board of the national DİTİB youth organization (BDMJ) resigned, accusing the association of suppressing any tendencies toward liberalization.

The extent to which DİTİB’s internal structures have become aligned with domestic political events in Turkey became clear in the summer of 2016, in the aftermath of a failed coup. DİTİB imams allegedly spied on alleged members of the Gülen movement. In response, Germany’s federal public prosecutor investigated 19 imams.

More recently, German media reported in September that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the domestic intelligence agency, was apparently considering keeping DİTİB under observation.

Both the German and Turkish sides are trying to heal relations, which have nosedived over the past two years. In addition to lingering differences over human rights in Turkey, Erdoğan’s visit is focused on areas of mutual interest such as economic ties, the war in Syria and refugees.

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