Austria to close seven mosques, expel imams

Austria's right-wing government plans to shut down seven mosques and expel up to 60 imams in what it described as "ju...

Posted: Jun 8, 2018 12:09 PM
Updated: Jun 8, 2018 12:09 PM

Austria's right-wing government plans to shut down seven mosques and expel up to 60 imams in what it described as "just the beginning" of a crackdown on "political Islam" and foreign-funded Islamic communities.

The measures mark the first time the country's controversial "law on Islam" -- introduced in 2015 when current Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was foreign minister -- is being invoked.

The imams and mosques being targeted are suspected of breaching a rule that bans the foreign funding of Islamic communities.

"Austria is a land of diversity, where religious freedom is highly valued, but it is also clear that we are a constitutional state where statutory rules are needed to organize our coexistence," Kurz said Friday. "Parallel societies, political Islam and radicalization have no place in our country."

Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, whose anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Freedom Party is currently in a coalition government with Kurz's conservative People's Party, said the crackdown on "dubious finance flows" was "just the beginning" of the fight against "radical political Islam."

Critics warn that the measures indicate an Islamophobic attitude in Austria's new government, formed last December.

Turkish government spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Friday on Twitter that the government's "ideologically charged practices are in violation of universal legal principles, social integration policies, minority rights and the ethics of co-existence."

A society that runs a mosque linked with the "Grey Wolves," a nationalist Turkish organization, will be shut down along with an Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques.

Austria's Office of Religious Affairs -- which has recently seen its powers expanded -- will oversee the process.

The 60 imams affected are all connected to the Turkish Islamic Cultural Association (ATIB). They could be expelled from the country or have their visas denied on the grounds of allegedly receiving foreign funding.

Including family members, 150 people could be affected, according to Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

'Difficult days are ahead'

Many of Austria's roughly 700,000 Muslims -- around 8% of the population -- have Turkish roots.

Turkish government spokesman Kalin described the decision as "a reflection of the Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave in this country."

"It is an attempt to target Muslim communities for the sake of scoring cheap political points," he wrote in a post on Twitter, adding, "Efforts to normalize Islamophobia and racism must be rejected under all circumstances."

Mahmut Askar, an ATIB consultant in Cologne and former chairman of ATIB Germany, described the measures as "shocking."

"This is a shame for democracy -- and especially for the Muslims in Europe," he told CNN. "Difficult and bad days are ahead for the Muslim minority in Europe.''

Foreign funding necessary 'to cover deficit'

Immigration and Islam dominated last year's election campaign in Austria, with the far-right Freedom Party calling for "minus migration" and a ban on "fascistic Islam."

Earlier in the year, Kurz's party was the driving force behind a law banning full-face Muslim veils in public spaces.

Since the arrival of around 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, many of whom were Muslim and had fled the war in Syria, the two issues of immigration and Islam have been frequently conflated by right-wing lawmakers.

Enacted in 2015, the country's new law on Islam was criticized by some as discriminatory. Although it guarantees certain protections for Muslims -- including the right to celebrate Islamic holidays and to access halal food in schools and hospitals -- critics pointed out that no other recognized religious groups in Austria face bans on foreign funding.

Defending the law in 2015, Kurz said, "We don't want any imams who are employees of other governments."

Speaking to public broadcaster ORF Friday, ATIB's Austria spokesperson confirmed that the organization is financed from abroad but said this was necessary because of the lack of training opportunities for imams in Austria.

Imams who had trained in Turkey and now work in Austria would continue to receive funding from Turkey "to cover the deficit," Yasar Ersoy explained. This does not happen "because we want it to," he added.

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