Austria to expel up to 60 imams, shut 7 mosques

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the moves came after an investigation by the religious affairs authority into images of children in Turkish-backed mosques playing dead and reenacting the World War I battle of Gallipoli.
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the moves came after an investigation by the religious affairs authority into images of children in Turkish-backed mosques playing dead and reenacting the World War I battle of Gallipoli.PHOTO: AFP

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

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”. 

Turkey’s presidential spokesman on Friday (June 8) lambasted Austria’s decision as an “anti-Islam” and “racist” move.

“Austria’s decision to close down seven mosques and deport imams with a lame excuse is a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country,” Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter after Vienna announced the move in a crackdown on “political Islam”.

“Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalising 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 inhabitants, 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,” far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told the news conference held by four Cabinet members. 

The ministers said up to 60 imams belonging to ATIB, a Muslim group close to the Turkish government, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on grounds of receiving foreign funding. 

“The circle of people possibly affected by these measures – the pool that we’re talking about – comprises around 60 imams,” Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said, adding that a total of 150 people risked losing their right to residence.  

A government handout put the number at 40, of whom 11 were under review and two had already received a negative ruling.

Chancellor Kurz said the moves came after an investigation by the religious affairs authority into images which emerged in April of children in Turkish-backed mosques playing dead and reenacting the World War I battle of Gallipoli.

The photos, published by the Falter weekly, showed the young boys in camouflage uniforms marching, saluting, waving Turkish flags and then playing dead. Their "corpses" were then lined up and draped in the flags.

The mosque in question was run by the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB) organisation, based in the German city of Cologne, and a branch of Turkey's religious affairs agency Diyanet.

ATIB itself condemned the photos at the time, calling it a "highly regrettable" event and saying it was "called off before it had even ended".