Dutch imams 'leaving in droves'

Amsterdam, Netherlands - Moderate Muslim preachers are leaving the Netherlands and being replaced by more extreme clerics, senior Dutch Muslim officials have warned.

Nasr Joemann of the Netherlands' Muslim Contact Group (CMO) said imams felt discriminated against and were leaving for France and Spain.

Of 450 Dutch mosques, 180 had no imam, leaving a vacuum that uncertified clerics were filling, he told BBC News.

The Dutch government said it had planned a meeting on the matter.

The CMO will be among the organisations present at the talks on 31 January with Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk.

The justice and immigration department said it would not comment on the matter until then.

There are about one million Muslims in the Netherlands - about 6% of the population.

Tensions have risen in recent years, since the popularity of anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn and the murder of film-maker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist.

'Situation critical'

The Deputy Chairman of the Association of Dutch Imams, Mohamed Ousalah, has accused the government of doing little to remedy the situation.

"The situation is critical. In Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht dozens of imams have left," he told the Dutch newspaper de Telegraaf.

He said imams were becoming disillusioned and leaving because since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, they were increasingly being linked to terrorism and facing discrimination.

Mr Joemann explained that while the Netherlands' Turkish community could recruit imams from Turkey, because of agreements between the Dutch and Turkish governments, there were much tighter restrictions on Moroccan imams.

"The mosques are forced to appoint people who are sometimes not qualified," he said.

"They are not always Moroccan or Turkish - sometimes they are from Somalia, Syria or Jordan - and they have a different concept of Islam."

Some, he said, followed the Wahhabi doctrine - a strictly conservative form of Islam previously absent from the Netherlands.

"They are creating problems and propagating new views in the mosques. Young people are quite open to this teaching. This is creating tension and clashes in the community," he said.

While the government had helped set up a scheme to train Dutch-born Muslims to be imams, it would be some years before the graduates could be posted to mosques, he said.

In the meantime he urged the government to relax restrictions on imams coming from Morocco, but said the government "has not responded positively yet".