BERLIN (AFP) - German police on Wednesday (Feb 15) raided the homes of four Turkish Muslim preachers suspected of spying for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government on the movement he blames for last year's coup attempt.
The imams, who were not named, are accused of reporting on Turkish followers of US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of having orchestrated July's failed putsch against him.
The four religious leaders allegedly passed on information through the Turkish consulate in the western city of Cologne to the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet, prosecutors said.
"The aim of today's searches is to gather further evidence on the alleged activities of the accused," prosecutors said after the raids in the western states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.
Police made no arrests but confiscated written material and data storage devices, said Frauke Koehler, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecution service.
News site Spiegel online reported that the imams belong to Ditib, an organisation controlled by Ankara that manages some 900 mosques or religious communities in Germany.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas charged that "the influence of the Turkish state on Ditib is too strong" and demanded the organisation immediately move to clear up the accusations against it.
In Austria, the interior ministry also said it was looking into charges that its Ditib counterpart Atib was "involved in the surveillance of supporters of the Gulen movement as well as Kurds, opponents and journalists".
Last December, the Dutch foreign ministry said Ankara had recalled its Diyanet representative after it emerged he had informed Ankara about Dutch citizens believed to oppose the Turkish government.
Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at the time labelled this "an undesirable and unacceptable form of interference in the lives of Dutch citizens by a diplomatic representative".
The Erdogan government has cracked down hard on followers of Gulen, who denies he was behind the attempted putsch.
More than 41,000 people in Turkey have been arrested over their suspected links to Gulen's movement, and 100,000 fired or suspended. Many of them are teachers, police, magistrates and journalists.
The government says the purges are necessary to clean the state of the "virus" of Gulen's movement, which encourages its members to work in public services.
Human rights activists have fiercely criticised the magnitude of the crackdown, saying it has gone well beyond alleged coup plotters.
In Germany, thousands of Turkish citizens have since applied for asylum, among them reportedly dozens of Turkish soldiers stationed at Nato bases.
Germany is home to some three million people of Turkish origin, the biggest population of Turks in the world outside Turkey.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has repeatedly criticised the scale of the crackdown and urged Erdogan to safeguard civil liberties.
Erdogan, meanwhile, is exasperated that Germany has failed to extradite hundreds of suspects linked to the coup, as well as to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and to the ultra-left.
Erdogan's government too has irritated Berlin by campaigning for Turkish votes in Germany.
Next Saturday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim plans to speak in Oberhausen, in North Rhine-Westphalia, to promote support for an April 16 referendum that would expand Erdogan's powers by creating an executive presidency.
Germany's integration commissioner, Aydan Ozoguz, told Bild daily that with such events, Ankara was "deepening divisions" among Turks living in Germany.