Turkey accused Austria of racism after the Austrian government decided for the expulsion of 60 Turkish imams and their families amid ongoing debates of the integration of immigrant communities and outside influence among diaspora groups.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the country would no longer accept “parallel societies, political Islam and radicalization.” They have no place in Austria, the chancellor said.
Austria’s move to expel Turkey-funded imams and families, and shut down seven mosques created a strong reaction from Ankara.
Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) also noted that nearly 150 people would lose their residential rights.
Ankara quickly denounced the 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”, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.
The imams have links to the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB), a branch of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet).
The interior minister added that the government suspects them of contravening a ban on foreign funding of religious office holders.
The ministry said 40 of them had an active application for extending their residency and that a number of these had already been referred to immigration authorities, where a process for expelling them was underway.
Other European far-right leaders welcomed the announcement.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, said on Twitter: “Austria is taking things in hand and showing that ‘when you want to, you can!'”
Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s League and interior minister in the new government, also tweeted his approval, saying: “Those who exploit their faith to endanger a country’s security should be expelled!”
Seven mosques will also be shut after an investigation by Austria’s religious affairs authority sparked by images which emerged in April of children in a Turkish-backed mosque playing dead and re-enacting the World War I battle of Gallipoli.
“Parallel societies, political Islam and radicalization have no place in our country,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the ruling center-right People’s Party.
The photos of children, 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 ATIB.
ATIB itself condemned the photos at the time, calling the event “highly regrettable” and saying it was “called off before it had even ended”.
One of the mosques targeted by Friday’s measure was in the Favoriten district of Vienna.
The government said it had been operating illegally and that it was under the influence of the far-right Turkish political movement, the Grey Wolves.
Worshippers arriving for Friday prayers were met with a sign on the door reading “closed” in Turkish and German.
Kursant, a 26-year-old, told AFP: “I’ve been coming to this mosque frequently since I was a child, I’ve had lessons here, I’ve never heard anyone at the mosque, any of the employees, express any Salafist opinions. That’s laughable.”
Six other mosques are being closed down, three in Vienna, two in Upper Austria and one in Carinthia.
All but one of the mosques affected belong to the “Arab Religious Association,” according to the government.
‘Making a scene’
Even Austria’s opposition parties were broadly supportive of Friday’s announcement, with the center-left Social Democrats calling it “the first sensible thing this government’s done.”
However, the Green Party pointed out it could serve as a propaganda victory for the Turkish government.
Turkey’s relations with Austria have long been strained, with Kurz calling on the European Union to break off negotiations on Ankara joining the bloc and banning Turkish politicians from campaigning in Austria for upcoming elections.
Around 360,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria, including 117,000 Turkish nationals.
Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked Kurz, saying: “This immoral chancellor has a problem with us.”
“He’s throwing his weight around and making a scene,” Erdogan went on.
Both Kurz, of the center-right People’s Party (OVP) and the FPO made immigration and integration major themes in their election campaigns last year.
The topic had been pushed up the political agenda by the migrant crisis of 2015-16, which saw more than 150,000 people seek asylum in the country of 8.7 million.
In Friday’s press conference, Kurz was keen to emphasize that the action was being taken under legislation to regulate Islamic associations that he himself brought in as a minister in the previous government and which had so far — in his opinion — not been used often enough.