Tensions are increasing between Berlin and Ankara over claims that Turkey has been using Islamic preachers in Germany to spy on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of orchestrating last July’s failed coup against him.
German police raided the homes last week of four imams suspected of collecting information on members of Gulen’s religious movement. Authorities say the spying in Germany by clerics paid by the Turkish government is part of a broader espionage effort likely extending to other European countries, including neighboring Austria, with imams hiding behind religion to conduct espionage on behalf of Ankara.
An official with the federal prosecutors’ office told VOA further raids couldn’t be ruled out.
Call for dismissal of DITIB-affiliated imams
The deputy chairman of the German Chancellor’s Christian Democratic party, Armin Laschet, called this week for the dismissal of all imams affiliated with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), Germany's largest Islamic umbrella group, which is tied to the Turkish government's Directorate of Religion, or Diyanet.
“We want an Islamic religious instruction, but it must be independent of a foreign state in the long term,” said Laschet. The association oversees 900 mosques in Germany and their imams are selected by the Diyanet with their salaries paid by the religious authority.
DITIB said in a statement it will assist German federal prosecutors, but it has pointed out the raids have been on the private homes of imams and that the organization itself has not been targeted by police.
"The raids of private apartments of Muslim clerics have led to anger within the Muslim community," DITIB warned in a statement posted on the organization’s web site. “Especially, since DITIB is intensively helping clarify the accusations since they first surfaced.”
Officials with Germany's domestic intelligence agency said that 13 imams affiliated with DITIB sent the names of alleged Gulen followers to the Diyanet. Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, warned in a statement following the raids: “Whoever uses Islam as a cover for espionage cannot rely [for protection] on the freedom of religion," he said.
“If the suspicion that some DITIB imams were spying is confirmed, the organization must be seen, at least in part, as a long arm of the Turkish government,” he added.
According to German federal prosecutors, last week’s raids in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rheinland-Palatinate are part of an investigation triggered by a September order from Diyanet instructing imams to supply Turkey’s diplomatic missions with information on Gulen supporters and sympathizers.
On a visit to Ankara in February, German Chancellor Merkel raised the issue, saying after a meeting with Turkey’s prime minister that “If we have problems, for example with the Gulen movement, and Turkey has information about that, then our security authorities must discuss that with each other.”
Other countries concerned
In neighboring Austria, lawmakers also are raising concerns about the activities of imams working in the country and paid for by Ankara. Green lawmaker Peter Pilz has accused the Erdogan government of operating a “global spying network,” and he claims to have documents showing the espionage extends across Europe and Asia.
In December, the Turkish government recalled its religious attache in the Netherlands after the Dutch government protested his role in collecting information on Gulen followers from 145 mosques.
The Dutch protest was prompted by a Diyanet report submitted to a commission of Turkish lawmakers tasked with investigating last July’s military coup attempt against President Erdogan. The report was loaded with references to intelligence supplied by imams from 38 countries about the activities of the Gulen movement.
In Scandinavia the activities of Turkish imams is attracting the attention of rights groups. The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has documented several cases since July’s coup attempt of what it sees as intimidating behavior by imams linked to Diyanet. It has highlighted the Facebook postings of Yusuf Yuksel, the general secretary of the Oslo-based Den Tyrkisk Islamske Union (Turkish Islamic Union), who has called on Turks living in Norway to spy on Gulen followers.
The Stockholm Center alleges some Turks living in Norway have had their Turkish passports revoked by Ankara as a consequence of profiling and intelligence activities by Turkish imams.
In the wake of the German raids, the chief of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, Mehmet Gormez, acknowledged some imams had “exceeded their authorities” and six have been recalled by Ankara. But he has dismissed accusations imams had been instructed to act as spies.
Senior Turkish officials have reacted angrily to the espionage allegations. On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized Berlin for allowing followers of what he termed the "Gulenist Terror Group" to live in Germany.
"It is not acceptable that they have found a place for themselves in a country like Germany," he told reporters.